Ed Palermo: We're Only In It For The Music
AAJ: When did you first record?
EP: I recorded my first album, Plays the Music of Frank Zappa (Vile Heifer Records) in'82, and now I sell it as Papier Mache, but you can only get it through me. Then in '87 I did another album which is also out of print called Ping Pong, (Pro Arte Records, 1987), named after the Wayne Shorter song. The next time I recorded was my first Zappa album, and that was in '97.
AAJ: What sort of crowds did you play to at the beginning of your big band career?
EP: When I used to play gigs before doing the Zappa material the band would generally outnumber the audience.
AAJ: That must have been pretty discouraging, no?
EP: : Check this out, man: when I was in college in Chicago my brother and I went to a club called The Brown Shoe, and we saw Return to Forever. They had just released Light as a Feather (Polydor, 1972) and at that gig he had Michael Brecker with him and Steve Gadd, and apart from me and my brother there were maybe three other people in the audience. The same thing happened when we went to see Sun Ra; there were just a handful of people and Sun Ra's got this 20-piece band! It was surreal, man.
We had some gigs that we did well at but for the most part it was really an up- hill battle to get the people to come out and hear an unknown big band. Then we started doing Zappa, and keep in mind that Frank had just died; we were playing regularly at a club called The Bitter End, once a month, doing my own material, and drawing very small audiences.
Then one of those months I decided we were going to do a month of Frank Zappa music, though it took me a couple of months to write all the material for one show. Around that time the Internet had just started becoming more used, and word got out via the Internet that there's a big band in New York City doing a night of Frank Zappa music. This is about six months after Frank died, because the concert was June of '94.
So now I go to my monthly gig where I'm used to seeing hardly everybody and the place is swamped! I meet people in the audience who drove down from Montreal, drove up from South Carolina; these people had never heard a note that my band had ever done, but they were so hungry to hear Zappa that they came from all over the place.
We played our show and the audience reaction is unreal. I'm thinking: "Holy shit! I've really got something here!" But still I guess I'm shortsighted because I thought I'd go back and do my own stuff the next month, figuring I'd just do the Zappa thing as one night. Then my brother told me, "Ed, why don't you call a bigger club in town and tell them what the reaction was, and maybe they'll book you?"
So, I wrote the guy at The Bottom Line a letter and to make a long story short we ended up playing every couple of months for nine years. All the time I was arranging new Zappa material and we'd change the show each time. We were rehearsing once a week and doing the gig about once every six weeks. It was a total labor of love, there was certainly no money in that. I lost money on it. That's pretty much my history up until now.
AAJ: Taking you back a little to Tito Puente, whose band you played in for three years, how did that experience prepare you for leading your own big band?
EP: That's a great question; I figure it had a major influence. One thing, when I started playing with Tito, I hardly heard that music, salsa and mambo and things. I was woefully ignorant of the music. It really took a while to get the groove of it, but they hung in there with me. I kept expecting to be fired at any minute; I was a total gringo.
AAJ: How did you get that gig then in the first place? What sort of audition did you have?
EP: Well, as most of these things happen; at that time that band was only using two saxophone players, alto and tenor, and every now and then for certain gigs they'd hire a baritone player. Then a couple of guys left the band and the guy who played tenor, who I'd met at a jam session, said: "Hey, can you play this Saturday? We've got three gigs. Can you do it?" Now, when I moved to New York I didn't work for a whole year, and I was getting ready to move back to Chicago because I was so disheartened about how bad it was going in New York, so I go to this gig, three gigs in one night with Tito Puente.
On baritone sax that night was Ronnie Cuber, and Ronnie is one of the greatest, if not the greatest baritone players in the world, so it was cool to hang out with him and be part of this scene. It was surreal to me. There are certain elements of that music, like the bass lines which are so bizarre where they lay on the beat. Plus the fact that visually, socially, all the women and all the men in the audience are dressed to the hilt, like they're going to the Queen's Ball.
At that point the guy who I was subbing for decided to quit the band, and they thought I'd done pretty good and so I was with them for three years. Right about that time was when I was really into the Charles Tolliver album, and I'd just seen Woody Shaw, so I'm starting to think: "Boy, I really want to start arranging."
Now, Tito Puente is a great arranger and we would play his arrangements. We were playing seven nights a week and sometimes there were two, three or four jobs in one night, so we were playing constantly. So just by reading the charts I would think: "Oh, so this is how the sax plays against the trumpet." I was learning all this stuff. It was a huge, huge influence on me and a great learning experience.