Review Summary: The summit of surplus.
We all know them: those records in a discography which seem to exist for the sole purpose of showcasing an artist’s growth. Flawed and ignored, the ‘blueprint’ albums are never the biggest cookie in the jar, or the brightest petal on the flower. These albums of progression stand only as a link, and nothing more. Frank Zappa’s July 1972 effort, Waka/Jawaka, falls into this category. In saying that, a Zappa blueprint is different to those of other recording artists. A lot different…
Waka/Jawaka was penned as a sequel, of sorts, to Frank Zappa’s 1969 classic, Hot Rats. Finding himself in a wheelchair, (following a freak mid-concert accident), Zappa flushed out his band and, in effect, started over.
It would be illogical to not speak of the follow up to Waka/Jawaka, (The Grand Wazoo), in the same breath. Written and recorded together, the two albums lay side by side in the Zappa collection as similar pieces – a rarity, if you look at the diverse range of his work. It is best to view Waka/Jawaka as the opener for The Grand Wazoo – the precursor.
In building on the jazz fusion feel of 1969’s Hot Rats, Zappa sternly directs the music he has written at a ‘big band’ sound. Gone were the impressively grimy blues jams, being replaced by spotless jazz improvisations. This sound is best presented by the two extended tracks of the album: ‘Big Swifty’, and the title track. Nearly weighing in at a combined half an hour, these two cuts are the obvious heart of Waka/Jawaka.
It is difficult to maintain the interest of a listener for 17 minutes, and while ‘Big Swifty’ is entertaining on the whole, it does drag at times. (For a more entertaining reflection of the song, see any of Zappa’s live performance of the tune – it very much became a staple of the live show). The track is basically an exposé of jazz themes, and instrumental prowess. It lacks the flow of Zappa’s following jazz pieces, but anyone with a mind and an ear for this style of fusion will undoubtedly find substance in the progressions, and beauty in the solos. If you’re looking for a standout track on Waka/Jawaka, the title track is your best bet. Concise in comparison to the album’s opener, the closing cut is a festive exploration of all things instrumental. You like trumpets? It’s got it. You dig keyboards? You’ve been catered for. A fan of Zappa’s crisp rhythms and leads? You’ll be in auditory heaven. It is hard work finding a single track with as large a dose of jazz fusion majesty as 'Waka/Jawaka.'
The middle section, comprised of the two songs (‘Your Mouth’, and ‘It Might Just Be a One-Shot Deal’), is filler. This isn’t to say the songs are bad – far from it, actually. ‘Your Mouth’ is one of the most entertaining little ditties that Zappa has gifted us with. Whether they disrupt the flow of the album will be a matter of personal opinion. In truth, they’re necessary in separating the extravagance of the two extended tracks. If the two shorter songs are a downfall of the album, then I challenge you to find a more enjoyable downfall.
Sounds pretty impressive for a transitional album, right? Right, it is. If you ignore the fact that The Grand Wazoo takes every aspect of this album and improves it, you have a classic on your hands. As it stands, hindsight, and Zappa’s continuing career of brilliance, have rendered Waka/Jawaka almost redundant; but hey, kick back, and let this blueprint of blueprints, this summit of surplus, fulfil your jazz fusion and big band thirst. Overlooked, but highly recommended.