Ed Palermo: the big band beyond

Noted since the 90s for his big band readings of Frank Zappa, Ed Palermo has latterly also plumbed the jazz potential in The Beatles, King Crimson, Traffic and others

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Ed Palermo. Photo by Chris Drukker

Early on in his career Ed Palermo cut two records, Papier Mache (Vile Heifer, 1982) and Ping Pong (Pro Jazz Records, 1987) before the disc that probably signified the turning point in his professional life. Following the death of Frank Zappa in 1993, Palermo’s big band played a one-off tribute gig, but such was its success that it led to a nine-year residency at New York’s The Bottom Line with occasional collaborations by Zappa alumni such as Mike Keneally and Ike Willis. The Ed Palermo Big Band Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa (Astor Place Records, 1997) was the start of an almost obsessional association with Zappa’s music that continues to this day. It was also the birth of a succession of Zappa-orientated albums beginning with Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance (Cuneiform, 2006) and followed by Eddy Loves Frank (Cuneiform, 2009), Oh No! Not Jazz!! (Cuneiform, 2014) and One Child Left Behind (Cuneiform, 2016).

But Palermo has always had something of a love affair with other popular music, and this first manifested itself in The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes I & II (Cuneiform, 2017) where he recorded an album of big band arrangements featuring famous songs by predominantly British bands such as The Beatles, King Crimson and Traffic. Some tracks even featured unlikely amalgams of two songs (Don’t Bother Me and Nardis anyone?). In a recent interview, Palermo explained the meaning of the eccentric-sounding album title thus: “It’s obviously a parody of the expression Great American Songbook … instead of doing American standards we are doing British … what I consider standards, music that I grew up with, fell in love with. And that is why we call it The Great Un-American Songbook.”

This tribute theme continued with his next album, the bizarrely titled The Adventures Of Zodd Zundgren (Cuneiform, 2018) which offered his interpretations of songs by another of Palermo’s heroes, Todd Rundgren, along with the now mandatory inclusion of some Zappa tracks. However Palermo’s next album broke with the Zappa tradition. A Lousy Day In Harlem (Sky Cat, 2019), adorned with a cover wryly referencing Art Kane’s memorable 1958 photo entitled A Great Day In Harlem, features original and jazz compositions interspersed with some standards. The apotheosis of the album is surely a blistering version of Coltrane’s Giant Steps. The album as a whole was critically well-received, and deservedly so.

For a follow-up recording, Palermo has returned to his Great Un-American Songbook theme with an album (The Great Un-American Songbook Vol. 3: Run For Your Life) populated by songs by The Beatles, Jethro Tull, Traffic, Procol Harum and others. However, reverting to type, he has also segued some of the tracks with Zappa or other compositions, deploying a technique he refers to as a “mashup”. He denies that there’s any great complexity in this, but as he expounds: “There really isn’t a formula per se… [it] more has to do with if I’m working on an arrangement of a song, something of that song will remind me of another song and instead of just ignoring it like most more normal people do I embrace it, I go with it and I think well ok that theme will go in there and that is, if there is a formula, that’s it right there.”

‘…if there’s anything that I think differentiates my band than other bands is just the sheer amount of joy’

Perhaps one of the unlikeliest of these medleys is the combination of a Moody Blues song with a Zappa tune and when Palermo was asked which was his favourite number on the album he responded: “Probably the last track on the album; it’s a mashup of Frank Zappa’s Moggio and [The] Moody Blues’ Nights In White Satin. When I do these mashups [a] lot of times it’s to be clever or funny but sometimes it’s because I’m going through something seriously that’s greater than the sum of its parts and this one I thought I’d really nailed it.” But even within these mashups Palermo can brilliantly sneak in yet another snippet of a song in a cameo role. One example of this is to be found early on in The Beatles’ Come Together married with Zappa’s Chungas’s Revenge where there’s a delightful and unmistakable quote from the opening keyboard intro to The Doors’ Light My Fire. Similarly, The Beatles’ Fixing A Hole mashed-up with Zappa’s Let’s Move To Cleveland contains a couple of fleeting snatches of FZ’s King Kong. Even with Jethro Tull’s Nothing Is Easy there’s a repeated quote interspersed from I’m The Slime from The Mothers’ Over-Nite Sensation (Discreet, 1973). Incidentally Katie Jacoby’s superb violin soloing here and elsewhere on the album plays a vital role, reminiscent of Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty, both pivotal players on several of Zappa’s records.

It’s clearly evident that Palermo’s love of this era of rock music stems from growing up in the hippy-tinged golden age of pop and this manifests itself in the joyous, celebratory arrangements of these timeless tunes, not least those inspired by his un-British lodestar, Frank Zappa. As to the overarching philosophy of his music and why people should care about The Ed Palermo Big Band he responds with typical self-effacement: “Oh lord, I’m not … I’m not sure they should. All I know is that when we perform, the amount of joy that people get out of this thing … because I talk to the audience after we’re done and that’s my favourite part of the whole thing … and they leave so happy, so that if there’s anything that I think differentiates my band than other bands is just the sheer amount of joy.”

Anyone who hasn’t heard any of Palermo’s exhilarating and witty records really needs to check them out very urgently. His big band facilitates the perfect antidote to some of the more po-faced musical offerings out there. Whilst he may be regarded as a musical equivalent of Mel Brooks or Woody Allen, his albums are always bound to hit an emotional apex, consistently accompanied by high levels of virtuosity throughout. For a self-styled funster, as with Zappa, Ed Palermo should also be taken very seriously.

The Great Un-American Songbook Vol. 3: Run For Your Life: discography
Within You Without You / Stop Stop Stop; Run For Your Life; Strawberry Fields Forever / Shove It Right In; Glad; And Your Bird Can Sing; Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!; Within You Without You (Part 2); Come Together / Chunga’s Revenge; Something In The Air; Let’s Move To Cleveland / Fixing A Hole; Nothing Is Easy; A Salty Dog; Shine On Brightly; Nights In White Satin / Moggio (55.00)
Palermo (arr, cond); Phil Chester (as, ss, f, picc); Barbara Cifelli (bar, bcl, cl); Ben Kono (ts, f); Cliff Lyons (as, cl); Bill Straub (ts, cl); Ronnie Buttacavoli, John Bailey (t); Charley Gordon, Mike Boschen, (tb); Matt Ingman (btb, tu); Bruce McDaniel (elg, elsit, v); Katie Jacoby (vn); Bob Quaranta (p); Ted Kooshian (kyb); Paul Adamy (elb); Ray Marchica (d). New York, New Jersey & New Orleans, May 2019-March 2020.
Sky Cat Records Sc201001