The Mothers: The Grand Wazoo

By Peter Keepnews

DownBeat, 24 May 1973

Bizarre/Reprise MS 2093: For Calvin (and His Next Two Hitch- Hikers); The Grand Wazoo; Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus; Eat That Question; Blessed Relief.
Collective Personnel: Sal Marquez. Malcolm McNabb, trumpets; Bill Byers, Ken Shroyer, Ernie Tack, trombones; Mike Altschul, Earl Dumler, Tony (Bat Man) Ortega, Joanne Caldwell McNabb, Johnny Rotella, Fred Jackson, Ernie Watts, Joel Peskin, woodwinds; Frank Zappa, Tony Duran, guitars; Don Preston, mini-moog; George Duke, keyboards; Erroneous, bass; Aynsley Dunbar, drums; Bob Zimmitti, Alan Estes, Zappa, Lee Clement, percussion; Marquez, Duke, Zappa, Janet Neville-Ferguson, "Chunky," vocals.

Rating: ★★★★

After a few years of fronting a band that specialized in comedy routines and musical parodies. Frank Zappa last year released an album under his own name called Waka/Jawaka that heralded a welcome return to music for music's sake. The Mothers' new album can be seen as a continuation of some of the musical ideas expressed therein, and it strongly indicates two things. First, Zappa remains as inventive and resourceful a composer, arranger and player as ever; and second, he has obviously been listening to a lot of jazz lately.

This is not to say that The Grand Wazoo is, strictly speaking, a jazz album. But one need only glance at the personnel to be aware of a jazz influence. In addition to some veteran Mothers, there is a large contingent of West Coast studio pros, particularly on Side 1, which features a big band. Zappa has written some exciting charts for the horns, and they handle them with the skill of musicians who know their work and the elan of musicians who love their work. The writing and playing are consistently uplifting on the title track, a joyful and exuberant shuffle, the highlight of which (for me) is a jaunty trombone solo by Byers, who has been active as a session man and arranger for almost as long as Frank Zappa has been alive.

The other big band track, For Calvin, is much more ambitious but vastly less enjoyable. Like much of Zappa's writing, it is a melange of disparate musical elements (an erie vocal, some collective polytonal improvisation, a very bombastic ensemble section with odd time signatures), but although it's ,possible to be impressed by the intricacy of the writing and the ease with which the musicians pull it all off, it's hard to be at all moved by anything in it. This is not one of Zappa's better works.

A smaller ensemble is heard on Side 2, with the emphasis on the piano and electric piano of George Duke. His association with Zappa over the past few years has been mutually beneficial, as can be heard most clearly in their interplay on the very substantial Eat That Question. Blessed with technique, intelligence and ebullience, Duke comps alertly and takes three very different but equally impressive solos – a sloppily good-natured one on Cletus, a two-fisted one on Eat, and a delicately lyrical one on Blessed Relief.

The last named cut is a beautiful way to end the album and should be required listening for anyone who still thinks of Zappa's music as "ugly." It is a lovely, lilting jazz waltz, the prettiest of many he has composed, and the solos, by Duke, Zappa (on amplified acoustic guitar with wah-wah pedal), and Marquez (a graceful Freddie Hubbardesque statement), extend the mood of the melody perfectly. The only thing that mars this track is the occasional interjection of extraneous sounds which seem unrelated to what's going on musically. This, of course, is a Zappa trademark, and, there are other places on the album where he uses it well, notably on Cletus, a deliberately silly tune given a deliberately silly performance. But Relief is a straightforward and attractive tune and doesn't need effects to enhance it. It's as if Zappa, so used to being outrageous, is overly wary of letting something so simple and pretty stand on its own.

A word about Aynsley Dunbar, a rock drummer of unusual skill and taste who adapts his style expertly to the music here. On the title track he drives the ensemble as if he had been born a big-band drummer. And a word, also, to anyone who fears that Zappa has abandoned his penchant for biting satire: the liner notes to The Grand Wazoo, which tell the story of the modern music business in the form of a fable of ancient Rome, are a masterpiece.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)