When it comes to artists as prolific and diverse as Frank Zappa, finding a point in their discography that could serve as a good introduction to newcomers is kind of difficult.
Frank was an iconoclast in every sense of the word. He made significant contributions to rock, jazz, avant-garde music and music recording and production in general, which means that any attempt at a consensus on his finest work feels very reductive.
However, most music fans point at his “Big Band trilogy” as Zappa’s creative peak; the records Hot Rats (1969), Waka/Jawaka (1972) and The Grand Wazoo (1972) were statements of ambition, pushing the boundaries of jazz fusion, and inspiring countless experimental rock groups at the same time.
But Waka/Jawaka itself is a sort of oddity. While Hot Rats explored a kind of melodic clarity and elegance in its construction, and The Grand Wazoo’s monumental scope is almost cinematic, this album was more of a free-form experience. The opener and closer to this trilogy are both considered canon-worthy for being compositional achievements, but this record is all about the jams. It’s all about the communion between one of the tightest bands ever assembled. Zappa’s personnel for Waka/Jawaka includes some of the most brilliant of his consistent collaborators — especially the enormous George Duke, a staple on the classic 70’s Mothers of Invention line-up — as well as musicians exclusively associated with this specific time, like pianist Don Preston and soon-to-be Journey drummer Aynsley Dunbar.
Album opener “Big Swifty” is, without a doubt, the record’s standout, thanks in part to Dunbar’s solid drumming. He drives the track forward through the exuberant 7/8-6/8 opening section, to the sassy big-band motif and onto the fascinating 13-minute jam. It’s in this part where we can hear the elements that differentiate Waka/Jawaka from the rest of the trilogy and of Zappa’s Fusion phase; Here, the band approaches the kind of spiritual restlessness of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, or the mid-period incarnations of Sun Ra’s Arkestra — even Frank’s guitar soloing eschews his usual anxious melodicism in favor of some noisy shredding in the vein of Sonny Sharrock or Pete Cosey — and while the whole thing feels loose and agitated in structure, the melodic sensibilities in Zappa’s themes prevail through the improvisation via the horn breaks, and of course we get a full reprise in the end, but now under a 4/4 time signature.
“Your Mouth” and “It Might Just Be a One-Shot Deal”, the vocal tracks that comprise the record’s middle section, are amusing little ditties that feel more in line with Zappa’s song-based albums like Chunga’s Revenge and Apostrophe. The former is an insane Dixieland Blues that sounds like a close cousin to “Road Ladies”, and Chris Peterson’s cartoonish vocal performance offers us a break from the “seriousness” of the instrumentals. The latter contains a Hawaiian guitar, a slide guitar and a pedal steel solo, courtesy of Jeff Simmons, Tony Duran and Peter Kleinow respectively, and Janet Ferguson’s vocal is an uncommon but pleasant occurrence in Frank’s universe.
The record closes with its title track, a longform piece that better fits our notion of this period in Frank Zappa’s career. The epic brass arrangements in the main theme are the perfect precursor to the twisted opulence of The Grand Wazoo, and the middle section, when brass and winds double Frank’s guitar leads, is a precedent to the demented passages of late 70’s/early 80’s tracks like “The Black Page” and “Sinister Footwear”. But the true stars in this show are Preston’s mini-moog and Dunbar’s drum solos, breaking the solemnity of the proceedings with some spontaneous fire.
Waka/Jawaka might be the least accomplished, or even the least carefully constructed work in Zappa’s Big-Band era — understandably, since Frank recorded this while still in a wheelchair, after a fateful attack at one of his concerts — but it’s a very effective point of transition in his discography. Some of the ideas that define his later masterpieces are born here, and his role as bandleader will be shaped by the interactions on this record from this point onward. If you believe the hype, yes, you may wanna start your Zappa adventure with Hot Rats, but then its sequel is the natural follow-up, and a deeper dive into Frank’s unstoppable genius.