Meet The Grand Wazoo

By Harvey Siders

DownBeat, 9 November 1972

We all know that necessity is the mother of invention. I'd always maintained that Pat Pending is the father – until I discovered that the real father is a mother: Frank Zappa.

Just how inventive Zappa can be was tested on an unsuspecting public on two continents as this word picture was being drawn. Just how unpredictable Zappa can be will become clear when I report that the prime mover behind the Mothers of Invention has gone legit. Now don't get the wrong impression: His hair is just as long, just as unkempt; his mustache is just as droopingly evil, and its bottom half just as tentative; his thoughts are just as outrageous, and his disdain for convention just as intense.

How then, you ask, has Frank Zappa become house-broken? Well it's his music. A respectable, big band jazz sound has suddenly asserted itself. Try to imagine 200 Motels infested with Hot Rats that can swing. The result runs a gamut that duplicates the two record labels owned by Zappa: Bizarre and Straight!

The vehicle for Zappa's latest sonic experiment reflects an evolution that embraces both extremes: from the bizarre Mothers of Invention to the current straight creation, The Grand Wazoo. Now if the name tells you nothing about the make-up or philosophy of the new group, that was Frank's intention. It's a typical "Zappelation," made up of one part gibberish, one part satire, and the rest – just plain old put-on.

For reasons known only to him, Frank decided to call his new ensemble The Grand Wazoo. For equally mysterious reasons, he revealed the following about Wazoo:

"Since the earliest days of the Mothers of Invention, from about 1964, roughly, I have been interested in assembling some kind of electric orchestra, capable of performing intricate compositions at the same sound-intensity levels normally associated with other forms of pop music."

There's an air of formality about the whole project – and formality is as foreign to Zappa as it is to Southern California, but these are unusual times. The search for newness is taking musicians out of their accustomed molds and casting them in unfamiliar settings. Jazzmen are discovering the financially rewarding world of rock; and, conversely, some rockers are latching onto the creatively stimulating milieu of jazz.

Zappa is one of the latter, and to many of his startled fans, shifting into reverse – in other words, going from bizarre to straight – is the ultimate in put-on. As Frank explained it: "To begin with, The Wazoo bears little resemblance to any previous form of rock 'n' roll band. There are 20 musicians in it who mostly sit down and read music from an array of charming little fiber-board stands. Nobody sings. Nobody dances. They just play music."

That may be anathema to his fanatical rock followers. It may even turn his groupies into novitiates. But for the jazz-oriented, it signals a certain sense of orderliness. For a change they're getting down to the music. And there are plenty of respected paid-up members of Local 47's jazz community to be found Wazoo-ing it: among the trumpets, Malcolm [McNab] and Sal Marquez; in the trombone section, Kenny Shroyer, Glen[n] Ferris, Bruce Fowler; in the reeds, Jay Migliori, Charles Owens, Ray Reed, Mike A[l]tschul; Dave Parlato is on electric bass, and Jim Gordon is on the equally electric drums.

For the most part, they're serious and dedicated and Zappa is the first to admit it: "very few of the Wazoo's members exhibit the normal pop musician's ability to function efficiently while garbed in fringes, feathers or festoons. The concert presentation will be informal, reasonably straightforward and non-theatrical.

"Those in the audience who make a fetish of close-range seats in order to scrutinize a group's soul-squint-grimace potential, to see if they're really getting into it (italics Zappa's), may be disappointed to discover the Wazoo eyeball heavily oriented to the printed page and conductor's baton." Incidentally, in the formal listing of sidemen, Zappa's instruments are: 1) guitar; 2) white stick with cork handle.

One can also find a contrabass sarrusophone among the amplified goodies in the Grand Wazoo, and that's something no jazz-rock band should be without. Earl[e] Dumler has the dubious distinction of making love to its double reed. (In case you have forgotten what a sarrusophone is, it's a brass wind instrument about the size of a baritone sax that can be found in some obscure symphonic scores doing the work usually assigned to the contrabassoon.)

Zappa regards Dumler and his oddity as his "one concession to overt showmanship." As Frank put it, with a face as straight as his baton, "It's possible for the first time to view a grown man with a mod hair cut, struggling against the forces of nature to extract accurate intonation from an amplified Eb contrabass sarrusophone." Charles Owens put it in more down-to-earth terms when talking about the tone it produces. "Sounds like an elephant playing soprano sax."

With all respect to Dumler and his struggles against natural forces, I must agree with Owens' observation. As for the rest of the band, I had a chance to hear the whole Wazoo during a rehearsal at the Glendale Civic Auditorium.

The rehearsal was called for 1 p.m. It was nearly two when Zappa hobbled in. His left leg is still in a brace from an incident last year in London when an overzealous fan knocked Zappa off the stage of the Rainbow Theater into the orchestra pit 15 feet below.

Zappa dispassionately greeted his retinue of friends, assistants, hangers-on, photographers, and – since no one manned the doors – curiousity-seekers lured by the bedlam of 20 pieces warming up.

Apparently Frank thrives on such chaos. He limped over to the centrally located stand that contained all his scores, tapped on it with a Benson and Hedges-length baton, called a tune, For Calvin And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers (you were expecting maybe Stardust?) and the Grand Wazoo was making music.

It was kind of ragged around the edges. But much of the blame belonged to Zappa. Not only are his charts awkward, but his conducting technique is jerky, usually unclear and always timid – which comes as a surprise from a cat that looks so evil. But the fact remains: he seldom kicked off the tempo before giving the downbeat. And when The Wazoo was in motion, Zappa failed to indicate precisely where "one" could be found in the midst of unmotivated tempo changes.

The fact also remains that Zappa is on to something with his new charts. Despite their clumsy melodic intervals and unsophisticated harmonic gropings, there is about them a refreshing fusion of jazz and rock. Take Calvin: Zappa has worked in some fine hard-edged brass attacks against a relentless rock pulse. That chart (all arrangements for the Wazoo are by Zappa) is one of the most successful weddings of jazz and rock in the book.

Big Swifty is a succession of time changes, from 7/8 to 3/4 to 7/8 to 3/4, to 5/8 then 6/8. One immediate comparison was with the Don Ellis big band amalgam of rock and jazz, but one immediate difference is that when the head has been stated, and it's time for improvised choruses, Zappa switches to reliable 4/4.

A satirical waltz permeates New Brown Clouds, with a section that goes into double-time before returning to the slow waltz. There are a lot of gimmicky effects here, but more significantly there are a lot of awkward passages in the writing: the kind of phrasing that would allow anyone to goof without the audience knowing it.

Another lazy feel is in Penis Dimension, a series of muddy chords before a satirical march takes over. The march-like section is reminiscent of the tongue-in-cheek sound of Kodaly in his Hary Janos suite. The main difference here is that Zappa calls for a free jazz excursion by tenor sax over the march.

The march in Low Budget Dog Meat is not so much satirical as it is grotesque, suggesting early Prokofieff. On the other hand, some of its twisting, meandering unison passages conjure up the musical incense of the mid-East.

What I'm trying to say is that through The Grand Wazoo, Frank Zappa is hoping to produce a self-portrait as a man for all seasonings: from the decadence of Weill to the sensuality of a belly dance. All this over a synthesized rock beat that swings, because of its integration with a jazz conception. Even those nonsensical titles are part of the total picture: umbilical cords to the underground that Frank is reluctant to sever.

Apparently those titles were not enough to insure success when The Grand Wazoo made its grand debut Sept. 10 at the intimate Hollywood Bowl. They were on a bill with The Doors and Tim Buckley. The crowd came in expectations of hearing the Shah of shock and his inventive mothers playing a familiar brand of rock.

Some of them laughed when the Wazoo began. Good old Zappa. Any moment now he'll jump up and say "Ah-one-and-ah-two-and-ah-three..." No way. All that Frank Zappa did was conduct! And all that his 18 men and two chicks did was respond! They sat and read and tried to follow the "white stick with cork handle". It was cerebral, antiseptic and disciplined. Maybe Zappa had the last laugh, but if he did he was laughing with tears in his eyes – plenty of his fans got turned off and headed for the exits.

Of course, a mind as sharp as Zappa's usually gets its biggest kicks by turning inward. He not only enjoys last laughs, but gives the impression that he can giggle at the whole weird world of rock – especially the necessary twin evils of promotion and public relations.

Said Zappa: "Every new group will issue some kind of proclamation explaining the fantastic potential delights resultant from exposure to their unique material, ingenious stage-craft, and/or their groovy vibes. This is usually accompanied by descriptions of the wonderful freedom shown by the group in performance, and assorted stuff about how everybody in the group loves what they're doing and what a wholesome bunch of lads they are. Maybe they're not wholesome. Maybe they're tough and degenerate, but of course underneath it all, each fellow is exquisitely talented and in posession of a GOLDEN HEART with matching SOUL. I make none of these claims on behalf of the Wazoo.

"Such a merchandising proclamation would probably include a paragraph or two about how nobody in the group really cares about money, followed by a carefully worded testimonial regarding the new group's URGENT COMMITMENT to make the world a better place to live in through their music, which is SENSITIVE and unutterably DEEP." (Capitalization also Zappa's – to be emphasized stronger than his italics.)

Two ironies come to mind instantly: First, part of Zappa's disdain for promotional proclamations came verbatim from one of Zappa's proclamations issued just prior to the unveiling of The Grand Wazoo; secondly, someone in the group came heretically close to showing that he really doesn't care about money. Or at least that he had ambivalent feelings about bread. Reedman Charles Owens told me John Mayall had called him to go on the road with his blues-rock group. "He offered me $650 per week, plus room and board. But I had to turn it down because I'd already promised Frank I would make this tour."

The tour was a strange one – from a logistical point of view. Following the bow at the Bowl, The Wazoo flew to Europe for single concerts in Berlin, London, The Hague, Copenhagen; then back to the States for a concert in New York and the grand finale in Boston.

Zappa seemed to be impressed by the fact that such highly-respected studio swingers agreed to make the tour even though they all knew beforehand that the band was scheduled to "self-destruct" at a specific time: "right after the show in the dressing room of Boston's Music Hall, September 24, 1972."

I was curious how he managed to contract the musicians whose loyalties matched their talents. "I called a trombone player I worked with during the recording of the Lumpy Gravy album. His name was – and apparently continues to be – Kenny Shroyer. With a rumpled copy of the Local 47 Musicians' Union Directory in one hand and a telephone in the other, Shroyer managed to fill most of the empty chairs by crooning such memorable lines as; 'Are you interested? Can you read these charts? Do you have time to rehearse?' and the perennial favorite, 'Are you free to travel?'"

Well, the traveling's over. The first season is history. According to Zappa's manager, Herb Cohen, "Artistically, it was a success. Those kids in Europe just sat and listened attentively. Financially – well, we broke even, so I'd call that a success too."

Zappa's immediate plans? They call for a return to the womb – a new, 10-piece Mothers of Invention, "a completely different repertoire" with a concert tour already set up in this country and Canada. But Frank is serious about Wazoo-ing it again next summer. And he should. Zappa has proven he can handle large forms. He's no stranger in paradise.

He pleased the guys in the band, and let's face it, the sidemen in a big band are the severest critics of any leader. The consensus I got when I talked to them – to Jay Migliori, Mike Altschul, Charles Owens, Kenny Shroyer and Glen[n] Ferris – was "It's a challenge... it's something different... I thought he was crazy at the outset, but there's a method to his madness."

Source: Grand Wazoo Reviews