Ed Palermo: We're Only In It For The Music
AAJ: Your musicians are tremendous, but it must give you a few more grey hairs each time a member leaves as you have to find a suitably skilled replacement and familiarize them with your arrangements.
EP: Well, yes, except it almost never happens. It's been a really long time since I had a musician quit. It would be heartbreaking and very frustrating but for the fact that I live in News York City where there are so many musicians and so many people to replace you. That said, if anyone left this band I would really miss them, because not only are they the best musicians in the world, but we've also become really good friends. Their dedication to me and to this project is something that I'll never be able to repay.
AAJ: On your big band Zappa CDs you personally don't take too many solos; why is that?
EP: When we play live people ask me that all the time, but my answer to that is that the guys in my band play so good, especially my saxophone guys, that I want everyone to hear them. They play rings around me. I would rather hear them than hear myself. When we play live I just shake my head and think, "Holy moly, where did you learn that?" [laughs]
AAJ: Let me take you back a bit and ask you about the first time you saw Zappa and the Mothers; what do you remember about the gig and what effect did it have on you?
EP: It had a huge effect on me, a huge effect. It's like it happened yesterday. I was 14-years-old and I saw him in Philadelphia in February 1969. It was right before Uncle Meat (Bizarre, 1969) came out, and they were touring to promote Cruising with Ruben and the Jets (Verve, 1968). They were doing that sort of material but they were also doing the more avant-garde sort of stuff like "Uncle Meat" and "King Kong." The set I saw was so interesting in the diversity of the music, from doo wop to classical, or whatever "Uncle Meat" is.
I just couldn't believe it. The band was so tight. The horn section was playing these melodies so tight, and man, the band looking so freaky. The whole thing was visually unbelievable. And of course Zappa was the coolest looking guy on the planet, just leading everything, and you couldn't help being mesmerized by him.
Everything about itthe organization, the creativity, the tightness, how he'd put his hand up and'boom!'it was a brand new grove. He rehearsed that band like crazy; Zappa made them rehearse on Christmas day, or New Year's Day, it didn't matter to Frank. Half the band didn't read music so they had to learn the music by rote.
This is stuff I've learned reading interviews with Frank and various band members. Bear in mind that I never met Frank; I never played in his band. Some people are under the impression that since I do this music I had some relationship with Frank, which I never did. But I don't want to misrepresent myself, I am strictly a fan. I am a huge Zappa fan.
AAJ: How did your interest in jazz come about?
EP: Well, I went to college from '72 to '76 and completely changed my thing then. Although I was still following Zappa, I had become a hardcore bebop saxophone player. Oddly enough, the major inspiration for me, and I'd been playing saxophone since I was a kid, was Edgar Winter. He was known as this rock 'n' roll guy but very few people realize that he's an amazing jazz composer and a super jazz saxophonist. Winter played a lot like the guys who became my heroes, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and Phil Woods.
AAJ: Could you recommend an Edgar Winter CD that people should check out?
EP: Yes, yes yes! Entrance (Sony, 1970). If you get this album it will freak you out how great it is. It has plenty of rock and blues on it but the jazz stuff and his classical harmonic knowledge is unbelievable. I have to say that my band does that entire album. We've played it live several times. We did it with Will Lee, the bassist from the David Letterman Show; he's an Edgar Winter fanatic too so he was one of the singers we used.
When I transcribed that stuff I learned so much, and that's after years of transcribing Zappa. I mean, Edgar Winter's stuff was so fascinating it was like unearthing treasures. I'm a huge fan of Edgar Winter. I'm dying to have him play with my band some day. We've discussed it but it never looks like it's going to happen.
AAJ: Hey, you never know. What was your first important gig?
EP: Well, after college I moved to New York and started playing with a guy called Tito Puente...
AAJ: A guy called Tito Puente or the Tito Puente?
EP: Right, Tito Puente. Around that time I started making my main artistic expression through writing and composing, though still playing all the while. I put a big band together around '79 doing my original material and various things. When Zappa died in '93, I decided to stop doing my own material for a while and dedicate myself to my hero. He's always been one of my main influences.
AAJ: What prompted you to put together a big band in the first place; it's asking for trouble, isn't it?
EP: Well, putting together a big band is a lot harder than putting a four- piece band together, that's for sure. It's funny because I wasn't really into arranging when I was at college; I was more into playing the saxophone and writing jazz tunes. Then when I went to New York I went to the Village Vanguard and I saw Woody Shaw. He had a group of four horns and I listened to that and I thought: "Huh, I think I could do that!" I love Woody Shaw.
I should also mention that there's a big band album which to this day is one of my favorite albums, and it's a Charles Tolliver album called Impact (Charly, 1975). I've actually never been a huge fan of big bands, you know I never really dug Buddy Rich or Woody Herman. When it came to jazz I liked the smaller groups, except for when I heard Charles Tolliver. Just don't drive when you're listening to it or you'll end up going at 90 mph. And that, and after seeing Woody Shaw I thought: "Man, that's the kind of thing I want to do." So, I was really inspired by those two things.
Then I just started writing stuff, from scratch. I mean, I was completely untrained as a writer. It was complete trial and error. I would tape every rehearsal and then go home and listen to the cassette, because that's what we had back in the '70s, and I'd get my score paper out and listen and go: "Well, that didn't work," and I'd start erasing and writing new stuff. That band was only a nine-piece band, with five horns.
So I started small. But then a friend of mine who was playing with Buddy Rich said: "Why don't you write some big band stuff, maybe I can get Buddy to buy something. So, I started to write some bigger band stuff, although I never did get a chance to sell it to Buddy Rich. However, as soon as I started writing for big bands I thought: "Man, this is cool! Maybe I can start doing the Charles Tolliver type thing." I then became obsessed with arranging.