Wazoo is the third in the "Vaulternative" series of releases, which provide archival recordings of full concerts (the first was a 1976 concert in Australia presented on FZ:OZ and the previous release was a 1980 concert in the New York city of Buffalo). The packaging for Wazoo is similar to the previous two. It's also a two-disc set with a cardboard outer cover and each disc contained in a paper slipcase that lists endangered plants and animals of the region where the concert was recorded. Why? Why not, I guess.
I had been hesitant to buy this album, for a few different reasons. First and foremost was the Zappa Family Trust (read: Gail and Dweezil)'s growing arrogance and possessiveness about "owning" all things Frank. The final straw was when they started suing and badmouthing existing Zappa tribute bands as a way of promoting Dweezil's current "Zappa Plays Zappa" tour. Add to that the fact that the album was only available via the ZFT web site, and concerns that the sound quality might not be very good (I've heard boots from this tour, and they always sound awful), and I just couldn't bring myself to order the album.
But reviews of the album on alt.fan.frank-zappa were positively glowing, and when the news broke that this album and The Dub Room Special CD were finally available via a channel other than the ZFT (in this case Amazon), I broke down and bought them both. In the case of Wazoo, I'm really glad I did. I'm kicking myself for not getting it sooner, and I can't believe it took 35 years for this album to be released. It should have come out right after the Waka/Jawaka and Grand Wazoo studio albums.
The sound quality is great. Far better than I was expecting. My only complaint is that whoever mixed the album went a little too far with the stereo separation - lots of things are panned all the way to the left or right, but I guess with so many instruments in the mix, you have to spread them out pretty far to make each one audible. Still, the opening introduction track has Zappa's voice in the right channel only, which had me checking to make sure I had my headphones plugged in correctly. But that's a minor gripe at best.
The performances are fantastic. The band is comprised of twenty musicians, many of whom play multiple instruments. So the sound is very full, and the palette is wide (every sort of brass instrument, woodwinds, tuned percussion, guitar, acoustic and electric keyboards, bass and drums). And the band makes this music swing. Frank had them go through a good bit of rehearsal before they hit the road, and this recording is from the final night of the tour so they have the material down cold. Most of the players were professional studio musicians (or previous members of Zappa's bands), so the places where they get to play solos and improvise are generally excellent. Many of the musicians would work with Zappa again throughout his career (Tony Duran, Ian Underwood, Jim Gordon, Malcom McNab, Sal Marquez, Bruce Fowler, Ruth Underwood) and at least one of them went on to fame as part of the Blues Brothers band (Tom Malone).
The set comes with a decent-length booklet. The first third or so of it is a reprinting of a Warner Brothers promotional newsletter (I'm surprised they got permission to use that, considering how Frank feuded with Warner) in which Zappa is interviewed about his upcoming big band tour. The booklet also includes the standard obscure, too-hip-for-the-room blurb from Gail, plus a few photos from the rehearsals and an essay by trumpeter Malcom McNab about what it was like to rehearse and tour with Frank.
The music covers some of what was released on Waka/Jawaka and Grand Wazoo, but it also looks back to 200 Motels for an instrumental version of the song Penis Dimension and ahead to include a half-hour long, formative version of The Adventures of Greggery Peccary. The second movement veers away from any previously heard version of Greggery and becomes a variable-speed Bolero for a few minutes. There's also a thirteen minute version of Approximate which is unlike any other released version.
In the booklet, Gail says that "due to disc space", the song Big Swifty was moved from the spot where it was actually performed (between Greggery Peccary and Penis Dimension) to the end of disc one, "to maintain the integrity of the performance". That makes absolutely no sense - disc two would have easily had enough space to hold the extra song. It would have caused the two disc lengths to be even more unbalanced (around 40 minutes and 56 minutes), but there's already a seven minute difference the way they currently are, so I don't see what the big deal would have been. And I have no idea what she meant by maintaining the integrity of the performance, unless they were considering splitting Greggery in two to balance out the discs. In the end it doesn't really make a difference, except that Frank asks the band if they're worn out or not before they perform Big Swifty, which doesn't make much sense after just 30 minutes of music, but would have been appropriate after the half-hour Greggery.
I've only given the album a couple spins so far, so I haven't had time to really dig into all the musical nuances or conceptual continuity clues. But I'm looking forward to giving it many more listens. All in all, I'd highly recommend this album to anyone who is a fan of Frank's big band work. And even if you've never heard Waka/Jawaka or The Grand Wazoo, you might want to grab this album first. Who knows how long these Vaulternative releases will remain available?