Frank Zappa – Waka/Jawaka – What to Listen For

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Waka/Jawaka.

Problems? 

Not long ago we discovered the secret to separating the men from the boys on side one: TRANSPARENCY.

On the lively, punchy, dynamic copies — which are of course the best ones — you can follow the drumming at the beginning of ‘Big Swifty’ note for note: every beat, every kick of the kick drum, every fill, every roll.

It’s all there to be heard and appreciated. If that track on this copy doesn’t make you a huge fan of Aynsley Dunbar, I can’t imagine what would. The guy had a gift.

Big Swifty!

The 17-plus-minute-long Big Swifty is a suite in which each section slowly, almost imperceptibly blends into the next, so that you find yourself in a completely new and different section without knowing how you got there — that is, until you go back and play the album and listen for just those transistions, which is what makes it worth playing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times.

Big Swifty is a jazz suite with amazingly innovative work by Sal Marquez on trumpet. He single-handedly turns this music into a work of GENIUS. I can’t imagine a more talented player. Zappa on guitar is excellent as well. Aynsley Dunbar plays his ass off, only falling short when it comes time to do his drum solo on Waka/Jawaka. The interplay of each of these rock musicians is in the tradition of great jazz artists.

And since the drumming throughout this record is so crucial to the music itself, a copy that really gets that right is one that gets everything right.

Zappa’s Jazz-Rock Fusion Masterpiece

What an incredible album. I know of no other music like it in the world. It’s not big band, it’s not rock, it’s not jazz, it’s a unique amalgamation of all three with an overlay of some of Zappa’s idiosyncratic compositional predilections (say that three times fast) thrown in for good measure.

In our opinion it’s nothing less than Zappa’s MASTERPIECE, the summation of his talents, and a record that belongs in every right-thinking audiophile’s collection. (We say that about a lot of records audiophiles don’t know well, but we’ve been doing it for most of our 27 years in this business and don’t see much reason to stop now.) Most copies, especially the WB brown label reissues, are dull and smeary with not much in the way of top end extension, failing pretty miserably at getting this music to come to life. Our most recent shootout winning copy gets as much of what we like about the sound to actually come through the speakers as any copy we have ever played, and that makes it a very special copy indeed.

A Desert Island Disc

What more can I say? If you love Zappa you need this record. If you want to expand your musical horizons and hear big band like you’ve never heard it before, this is the record for you. I’ve listened to this album literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. It gets better every time I play it.

Blue Labels and Reissues

By the way, the Blue Label originals are quite a bit better than the later Warner Brother reissues. I would avoid any reissues for Zappa’s albums; we’ve never heard a good one. And that includes the Classic Records reissue of Hot Rats.

Rolling Stone Review

Rob Houghton / October 12, 1972

Although it doesn’t happen often, whenever Frank Zappa goes about the task of purging himself of his normal ration of acrimony, contempt, bile and phlegm, he sometimes comes forth with an album that is every bit the musical experience that he always claimed he could produce. With the exception of the astonishing work he and his musicians did on Hot Rats a couple of years ago, much of Zappa’s musical output has been too malnourished to support his artistic pretensions.

Waka/Jawaka — Hot Rats, while little more than a long delayed extension of the original Hot Rats album, is one of Zappa’s most enjoyable, less hypertense efforts, and while it may lack the tightness, the rock-based energy of its predecessor, it contains some of the best material he’s done in years.

The musicians brought in for Waka/Jawaka are not the stellar personalities that graced Hot Rats. Captain Beefheart and Sugarcane Harris are gone, replaced by newer faces that include Tony Duran on slide guitar, Sal Marquez on trumpets, and Don Preston on Moog and piano. They comprise a tight, disciplined group.

The first song is a 17-minute extravaganza called “Big Swifty,” which moves on the strength of Zappa’s guitar and Marquez’ horns through enough changes to add up to a solid modern jazz suite. It’s good, it stands up to repeated listenings, and is, along with the title cut, one of the best things on the album.

“It Just Might Be a One Shot Deal,” is good old Mothers’ music, a chaotic arrangement of acoustic, slide, Hawaiian, and pedal steel guitars, “Waka/Jawaka” rounds out the album with an 11-minute jazz improvisation.

Maybe Frank Zappa is just getting mellow for the first time in his career. Or maybe it’s just a phase. Either way, while Waka/Jawaka may lack the brilliance of Hot Rats, or the capacity for irritation that existed on some of the Mothers’ material, it’s a distinctive album.