Released in July 1972, Waka/Jawaka is Frank Zappa’s deepest dive into jazz-fusion – a swinging, solo-heavy set of thrilling jams that feel like the natural follow-up to his first solo album, 1969’s Hot Rats. The album is bookended by two long instrumental pieces that showcase one of the most experimental projects that Zappa ever assembled. Meanwhile, the two short songs in the middle fall in with Zappa’s more song-based albums like Chunga’s Revenge and Apostrophe(‘), suggesting a path that the Mothers may have taken had circumstances been different.
Zappa had suffered life-threatening injuries in December 1971 after being pushed offstage at the close of his show at London’s Rainbow Theatre by a crazed audience member. Zappa was treated for acute concussion/head trauma, a fractured leg, a broken rib, and a series of fractures and other injuries to his neck, legs, and back. He also suffered from temporary paralysis of one of his arms. There were more lasting effects – the fall crushed Zappa’s larynx, which dropped his voice a third of an octave lower, and (according to his 1979 song “Dancin’ Fool”) one of his legs was permanently shorter as a result of the assault.
Incredibly, despite being confined to a wheelchair, Zappa wrote and recorded music that would rank among his best work while pointing the way toward his future. Waka/Jawaka was recorded alongside The Grand Wazoo in April and May 1972 at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, with Zappa taking advantage of the studio’s 16-track recording facility.
The touring line-up of the Mothers had disbanded after the incident, giving Zappa the opportunity to refresh the line-up. Some familiar faces returned – keyboard player George Duke (who would also record four solo demos with Zappa during the sessions), Don Preston on the state-of-the-art Minimoog, and Aynsley Dunbar on drums. New names included Sal Marquez (trumpet), Tony Duran (slide guitar), and, on bass, Alex Dmochowski. The latter appeared in the album credits as ‘Erroneous.’ As Zappa later explained, “He was not a US citizen, and he was in the country past the stay of his visa, and he was not in the musician’s union, and so I wouldn’t put his real name on the album.”
Waka/Jawaka’s extended jams gave the new group a chance to show what they could do, and Dunbar proved his worth immediately by steering “Big Swifty”’s ecstatic and frenetic opening section through rapidly alternating time signatures with panache. The track settles into a jazzy shuffle in 4/4, over which Duke (on Fender Rhodes), Marquez, and Duran take solos. More than any other Zappa album, Waka/Jawaka suggests the influence of jazz. Meanwhile, Zappa’s aggressive shredding sees him tapping into a freer sound than before, paving the way for the lengthy solos that would become a touchstone of his sound.
That freedom sets Waka/Jawaka apart from Zappa’s other forays into fusion. Dunbar later spoke to Modern Drummer about the liberating recording sessions, “The Waka/Jawaka album was an interesting session, just because it was completely off the wall ad-lib. Zappa let me do whatever I wanted to with it, so I played like a frustrated drummer. I could play a million notes a minute and get away with it. It was actually overkill for me, but it was interesting because it was so different.”
That anything-goes attitude was exemplified by Preston’s Minimoog solo on the album’s other extended piece, the woodwind-powered title track. Preston’s gymnastic playing was so impressive that it caused the inventor of the instrument, Bob Moog, to proclaim, “That’s impossible – you can’t do that on a Moog!”
The two other songs on the album – “Your Mouth” and “It Might Just Be A One-Shot Deal” – are fine examples of the witty and off-kilter rock that Zappa would explore throughout the coming decade. The winningly sassy “Your Mouth” features lead vocals by Marquez and Kris Peterson, an ex-bandmate of the trumpeter. “It Might Just Be A One-Shot Deal” flits between jugband blues, Dixieland jazz, and smooth country rock (complete with pedal steel from ‘Sneaky” Pete Kleinow) with vocals from Janet Ferguson (who had previously featured on Burnt Weeny Sandwich) and again, Marquez, this time deploying a bizarre accent, for reason best known to Zappa.
Waka/Jawaka stands up on its own as one of Zappa’s most vibrant and enjoyable explorations of jazz-rock. That it was followed just months later by another classic album, The Grand Wazoo, after all the composer had endured, is remarkable. The two albums represent a new beginning for Zappa. From here, he could go anywhere.