Frank Zappa – Waka/Jawaka & The Grand Wazoo – 50th Anniversary Box Set: Box Set Review

The Zappa reissue programme continues – this time, the 50th anniversary of Zappa’s famed “Electric Orchestra” period is celebrated.

Release Date:  16th December 2022

Label: Zappa Records/UMe

Formats: 5CD Box Set / Digital / Vinyl (Waka/Jawaka & The Grand Wazoo)

And so, the Zappa reissue juggernaut rolls on.  First off the blocks, back in November 2021, came the 6CD set to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Frank’s 200 Motels movie-and-album project.  Then, in March of this year, we were treated to the mammoth 8CD compendium of the historic Zappa/Mothers June 1971 concerts at New York’s Fillmore East auditorium, complete with those famed cameo appearances from John & Yoko.  And then, if that wasn’t enough, in June, Zappa Records/Ume played yet another ace card – a 6CD memento of three concerts performed by Zappa and his band in and around Erie, Pennsylvania between May 1974 and November 1976. 

And now, this latest installment of the programme celebrates the 50th anniversary of that pair of albums often categorized as Frank Zappa’s “Electric Orchestra” period – Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo by bringing together, not just the remixes of the albums themselves, but also an impressive array of previously unreleased alternative takes of just about every composition recorded during the album sessions, numerous Vault mix session out-takes and oddities and, maybe most interestingly, a full recording of the final date of the 1972 Petite Wazoo Orchestra tour at the Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, on 15th December of that year.  And that’s not all – the collection also includes a set of demos for Mothers’ pianist George Duke’s solo project, with Zappa handling production duties and contributing guitar.

As we’ve now come to expect with the sequence of deluxe reissues from the Zappa Records/UMe stable, the package is a lush one.  Discs One and Two of the set are dedicated to alternative takes and out-takes from the Paramount Studio recording sessions that spawned the two albums, those George Duke demos can be found on Disc Three, whilst the Winterland concert recordings are spread over Discs Three and Four.  The remixes of the original albums – lovingly undertaken by Erich Gobel and Karma Auger at Studio 1LA – are presented on the Blu-Ray fifth disc in immersive Dolby Atmos and Dolby Digital True HD 5.1 surround sound.  And, as usual, the whole shebang is packaged in a clamshell box and accompanied with a 44-page booklet, packed with previously unseen photos taken during the recording sessions, rehearsals and during the 1972 European and US tours.

And vinyl lovers haven’t been neglected, either.  Both Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo are released on black 180-gram vinyl; Waka/Jawaka will also be available -in limited quantities – on 180-gram translucent green vinyl and The Grand Wazoo is being issued – again in limited quantities – on brown marble vinyl.

Frank Zappa had spent the early weeks of 1972 in hospital, recovering from the injuries he sustained after being pushed from the stage at London’s Rainbow Theatre by a crazed fan on 10th December 1971.  He spent the first half of 1972 in a wheelchair, constrained in a leg brace and, confined to his home in Los Angeles, he started to set out the framework for the next stages of his career, including producing doo-wop band Ruben And The Jets (named after Zappa’s own 1968 doo-wop project) and taking steps to realise his dream of working with a large “Electric Orchestra.”

In fact, Zappa was able to bring together a 20-piece ensemble, comprising mainly musicians he was unfamiliar with – such as brass/woodwind players Sal Marquez, Malcolm McNab, Kenny Shroyer and Earle Dumler, alongside more familiar faces like drummer Aynsley Dunbar, bassist Alex “Erroneous” Dmochowski and keyboardists George Duke and Don Preston.  In a contemporaneous interview, Zappa commented: “It’s a group you’ve never seen before – 20 pieces including six reeds, six brass, two concert percussionists, one drum set, one electric bass, two guitars, keyboard and synthesizers, and an electric cello.  It’s really nice.  The only names people will recognize from past associations will be Ian Underwood on keyboard and Ruth Underwood playing percussion one.  Most of the people who are on the Waka/Jawaka album are in this group.  We’ll probably be billed as The Mothers.  What we really have here is an electric symphony orchestra…”

In fact, Frank christened the ensemble The Grand Wazoo Orchestra and, by the end of April, he had the two albums – Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo in the can.  Waka/Jawaka, recorded with a core of between six and nine musicians, was released on 5th July 1972 as a Frank Zappa “solo” album, often considered to be the sequel to his 1969 tour-de-force, Hot Rats, and there’s certainly lots of evidence to justify that comparison; it’s jazzy, predominantly instrumental and laced with multiple time-signatures.  Side One of the original album was given over to the mighty Big Swifty, a 17+ minute epic with some wonderful trumpet parts from Sal Marquez, whilst a real highlight of the album’s second side is the disquieting It Might Just Be a One Shot Deal, on which Sal shares vocals with Janet Ferguson and “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow – on loan from The Flying Burrito Brothers – adds atmospheric pedal steel.

Follow-up album, The Grand Wazoo, is an altogether grander and, arguably, more ambitious, venture.  With up to 20 musicians in action at any one time, it’s the culmination of Zappa’s experimentation with big-band music.  Again, the content is largely biased towards jazz-fusion instrumentals.  Originally released in November 1972, it’s an album that continues to rank highly on the listings of Zappa-aficionados.  Sal Marquez stars once again with his trumpet contributions to the album’s epic title track; the obligatory unsettling lyrics are provided by the jazzy waltz tune, For Calvin (And his Next Two Hitch-Hikers, whilst Zappa shows that he can rock along with the very best on the stunning Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus, an alternative take of which (from the second disc of this set) has been chosen to preview the whole package.

Frank took the whole 20-piece outfit out on the road in September 1972 to share with the world what he’d been up to for the past nine months or so.  The tour, billed as Frank Zappa/Mothers & The Grand Wazoo Orchestra kicked off on 10th September at the prestigious Hollywood Bowl – the first time that Zappa had played there.  The tour also included shows in Berlin, Den Haag, Boston, New York and Los Angeles, plus a memorable appearance at a one-day festival at The Oval Cricket Ground in London, where he appeared alongside Hawkwind and Beck, Bogert and Appice. 

After a short break that followed the 25th September concert in Los Angeles, Frank was back on the road once more on 27th October for a show at the Montreal Forum, with Tim Buckley and Curtis Mayfield in support.  This time around, the band comprised a more manageable and economical line-up of just ten musicians.  Dubbed The Petite Wazoo Orchestra, the band comprised: Frank on guitar and vocals; Gary Barone on trumpet; Earle Dumler on oboe and double bass; Malcolm McNab on tuba; Tom Malone on trumpet; Bruce Fowler & Glenn Ferris on trombones; Dave Parlato on bass; Tony Duran on slide guitar and Jim Gordon on drums.  And – it is the concluding show to this tour – on 15th December at the Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco – that was captured on tape and is, for the first time, included in its entirety in this package.

By the time the band arrived in San Francisco, the next phase of Frank Zappa’s life was already beginning to unfold and selections such as Montana, Father O’Blivion and Cosmik Debris, from 1973’s Overnite Sensation album, had found their way onto the setlist.  No moss ever grew on Frank Zappa!

This is a truly excellent package, although I suspect that this latest offering from Zappa Records/UMe will appeal primarily to the Zappa completist.  But, for those completists – and there are hoards of them – this celebration of a remarkable year in Frank’s career will be, dare I say it, indispensable.

Listen to the alternate take of Grand Wazoo track, Cleetus Awreetus-Awrightus, from Disc Two of this collection here:

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5 replies »

  1. I saw Frank perform in Philadelphia in 1971 or 72. Was a great show complete with orchestra. Unlike anything I had seen before or since.

    • Hi Richard – That must have been fantastic indeed! It was 1979 before I managed to see Frank in the flesh – a great experience, but I’d have loved to catch him at a more formative stage in his career.

  2. Hi Robert – Apologies for the confusion; I’m referring to Zappa’s production work with Ruben Guevara Jr’s band, rather than Frank’s 1968 doo-wop project. Further to your comment, I’ve altered the wording to my review to hopefully clarify things.

  3. Nice article, thanks. His Halloween shows in NYC were always a treat, plus a show in ~76 at Nassau Colisseum with Leo Kottke then Mahavishnu Orchestra opening. Sherman, cue the Wayback Machine…

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