Frank Zappa - Waka / Wazoo

Initially when the Frank Zappa deluxe box titled “Waka/Wazoo” was announced, I was not fully convinced that it would make it into fans hands. Thankfully it has arrived and has surpassed expectations in multiple ways that are revealed in this review.

The modestly priced box contains 4 CD’s and 1 Blu-ray, the later includes high-resolution versions of both “Waka/Jawaka” and “The Grand Wazoo” which obviously make up the combined name of this deluxe edition. Fans are treated to these two albums remixed in their entirety in both Dolby Atmos and 5.1 Dolby True HD, both utilizing a sampling resolution of 48kHz / 24-bit, while the remastered version of the original stereo master tapes are presented as LPCM 96kHz / 24-bit. Everything is housed in a small clamshell case that includes a 42-page booklet featuring photos and commentary.

Let’s dive into the two albums, first up is Waka/Jawaka which is the fifth studio album by Zappa and was released in 1972. Best known for its experimental and eclectic mix of jazz and rock (aka fusion) music, the album features a large ensemble of musicians that has proven to be a breathtaking listen in either multi-channel formats available on the Blu-ray.
Even more elevating is the Dolby Atmos mix characterized by the creative use of space that richly and dynamically broaden the soundstage. Using of reverb, echo, and other effects, both audio engineers Karma Auger and Erich Gobels have ignited a sense of depth and dimension that draws the listener into the music. Careful attention has been given to the overall balance, allowing each instrument to have its own place in the mix that contributes to the overall atmosphere.

What listeners will hear on the opening track “Big Swifty” is Zappa’s guitar lead ripping from the front channels back into the left back and delaying to the heights. Similarly, the horns blast from the front speakers hitting off the back wall with ambience reflecting into the height right speaker. Cymbals and drums in general sound remarkably realistic and are widely spread across the front with cymbals elevated up toward the height channels, along with ample central focus given to the snare and kick. Bass guitar almost exclusively digs in from the center speaker, allowing listeners to pick out each note through the dense instrumentation. Additionally keyboards span across the front channels, offering additional grounding for the rhythm, while some neat flute and horn parts pop up around the balance of the room.

“Your Mouth” takes on a very club like feel with a thick round bass emanating strongly from the front channels while various instrumentation, including horns, vocals, guitars, and keyboards spread around the soundscape. An aural aspect that I am enthralled by is on these Atmos mixes how the horns offer a sense of slight movement in the front speakers, as if the horn player is right in the room, stepping from side to side, moving the instrument along with the music. Not only are these new mixes exhilarating, but the albums are filled with masterful musicians, each who are clearly having fun adding to the layers that are embedded across the various tracks. There is a sense of looseness to their playing that makes listening to these pieces super enticing, as they play off one another taking fusion jazz into new realms.

I absolutely find myself drawn into the ghostly vocal separation across the front channels that blur into the back speakers on, “It Just Might be a One-Shot Deal.” Heading through the many movements, each taking on a different style, the piece leads into a jazzy portion, where the horns can be heard punching in from the back left channel and subsequently spreading up into the front speakers. The high channels continue to play an excellent role by providing secondary delays, elevating the mix off the floor. Take note to the fantastic keyboard solo from the back speakers, once again demonstrating how the engineers have fully used the entire 3D space to immerse the listener.

Comparing the Dolby Atmos mix to the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix there are some clear differences which obviously include the lack of height speakers. What I heard beyond that is a 5.1 mix that is musically more cohesive, all while retaining the creative edge found on the Atmos mix, which elevates so nicely into the height channels and sends the listener on an aural journey into the stratosphere. Bringing the mix back down to earth I noticed a diminishment of ambience that provided increased spatial depth floating on the Atmos mix and has been flatten on the 5.1 surround mix. This comparison is very similar to moving down to a stereo mix from a multi-channel quad or surround edition. Still either version has its merits. Most Blu-rays utilize Dolby Atmos for the 3D spatial experience and DTS HD Master Audio for the 5.1 version. I mention this as listeners may need to confirm that their processor is detecting and playing the codec intended, as Dolby Atmos metadata is placed within a Dolby TrueHD signal so that backward compatibility is more easily accommodated.

Moving on to the second album on the Blu-ray it opens with the title track, “The Grand Wazoo,” which is heavily enriched in the fusion world. Listeners continue to be massively immersed with guitars delayed across the back channels, while keyboards bass and drums vamp the jazz-rock groove from the front speakers. Zappa’s wa-wa driven guitar solo bites out of the center channel and is subsequently followed by Billy Byers’ massive jazzed-out trombone solo.

When the Grand Wazoo was originally released back in 1973, the song order was slightly different than subsequent releases. The title track was opened the album instead of the track “For Calvin,” which happens to be considerably weirder and very much in the vein of “Freak out” and the Mothers earlier works that are lit up with psychedelia. I certainly prefer the revised order as I feel the slower paced tune fits better further into the album.

But we’re not here to discuss the order of things, rather we’re here to discuss the placement of things... and For Calvin continues to amaze with creativity. Zappa‘s vocals are heard from the right front channel with secondary voices murmuring up from the left. It’s all in aural ecstasy as various parts take places in different places around the room, making for an eargasmic listen.

The sound quality throughout has been stellar, and one can resiliently hear this specifically with the Clavé as it distinctly strikes from both the back left and front right channels at different points throughout the song.

“Eat that Question” is by far my favorite song on the Grand Wazoo, opening with the Fender Rhodes keyboard spread across the back channels and ambiently reflected upfront. The remainder of the band kicks in, with the bass and drums spreading out from the front channels, while sizzling guitars wa-wa on the sides, followed by a jubilant keyboards solo taking flight from the left front to the back right speaker. Of course, the song wouldn’t be complete without an incredible guitar solo that zips out from the front right channel. But wait, there’s more and I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag. So, just know that you’re in for an aural extravaganza.

The gentle feel of the closing tune “Blessed Relief” is a soothing ending to this two-disc set that features Zappa in the jazziest of ways across the nine songs. It was written, recorded, and produced while Zappa was recovering from injuries sustained after being pushed off a concert stage. Zappa’s playing is limited on these albums, instead the focus is more on his skills as a composer and arranger. The spatial mixing engineers continue to fully surround the listener with instruments from all three dimensions. I especially like the airy field to the guitar solo that while having a very direct tone also distinctly exhibits the space around the amplifier through which the electric guitar was played. It’s nuances like this that make this box set a very worthwhile purchase for fans of Frank Zappa and high-resolution audio enthusiasts.

I want to briefly touch on the stereo remaster, which absolutely sounds stellar, especially the rich lows and the tingly highs. However, when comparing it to both the 5.1 and Atmos mixes, it lacks some warmth in the midrange, which are ever so present on those surround versions. Still, believe it or not, I do not have an alternate copy of either of these releases on hand to make an actual comparison to an earlier stereo edition. It is probable that what we are hearing today contains improvements, especially in the very lowest of regions and upper mids through the top end. I can still easily say that the stereo remaster sounds fabulous and would likely be a great addition to any audiophile’s collection.

Additionally, one aspect that is extremely obvious between the stereo and multi-channel versions can be heard on the title track “The Grand Wazoo.” Listeners will surely notice the bright vibraphones on the stereo mix which becomes lost in the mix on both multi-channel version. This is just one example out of many, exemplifying how the differences add up to a change in overall balance, which I wager is most likely due to the balancing choices made by the audio engineers on the Atmos and 5.1 mixes.

In this review, I’m not covering the four compact discs, which fans like yourself can take the time to explore on their own. Of course, releases from Frank Zappa must be unusual, and Waka/Wazoo follows this path. For years I have not understood why a label would duplicate content made available on a high-resolution format by making it available on a CD in the same box set. Finally this has become reality with this box set chalk full of bonus material across the CD’s! Thus, the Blu-ray contains the two albums in their entirety in various hi-res codecs, while the CDs contain the following bonus material without any duplication - CD1 and CD2: Paramount Studios Recording Session Alternates and Outtakes, CD3: George Duke Demos (The Master Versions) + George Duke Session Outtakes, the end of CD4 + all of CD5: 10 Piece / Petite Wazoo (Live)

If I haven’t made it clear yet, this box set is a must have for fans of Frank Zappa and an absolute must have for immersive listeners. With details like the ability to easily hear the studio room ambience, one can only imagine being in the room with the 20 musicians that made this recording as they joined together to perform this music. Waka/Wazoo is by far one of the best box sets I have purchased over the past 12 years of collecting and writing reviews. Don’t miss it.

Released December 16, 2022

 

 

 Format Info

4CD + 1Blu-ray box set featuring 48kHz / 24-bit Dolby Atmos and Dolby True HD 5.1 mixes, plus remastered original stereo mixes at 96kHz / 24-bit LPCM.  Also available on vinyl and via streaming sites.

 

 

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 About the Author

Wesley Derbyshire Profile Image

Wesley is a lifelong music enthusiast. He started his career in the recording industry in New York City as an audio engineer, producer, and studio manager. Subsequently he toured across America as a guitarist with the short-lived band Land's Crossing. After many years in the technology sector and amassing a substantial vinyl and CD collection, he delved into immersive audio and created Hi-Res Edition to share with other listeners about the sound quality and discrete mixes available on many formats. He recently upgraded his system to 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos and continues to seek out and share about the best sounding releases.

 

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