Ed Palermo: We're Only In It For The Music
AAJ: What was Tito Puente like as a leader, as an individual? Was he an easy guy to get on with?
EP: No. He was a musical genius, I mean, he was brilliant but he knew he was a musical genius and he carried it like a badge of honor. If he had something to say to you because you were doing wrong he wouldn't mince his words. He was more than straightforward; he would be borderline mean. He could make you feel like a real berk. You'd try to play it better the next time but I still think it's a bad way to deal with human beings. He liked his control and he liked being in a situation where he could be a bully.
I never became close friends with him but it was a total honor to be playing in his band, because for one thing I didn't deserve it and there were people out there who did. He was one of the most important people in music as far as I'm concerned.
AAJ: Coming back to your relationship with the music of Frank Zappa, do you have a favorite Zappa period?
EP: Well, my favorite Zappa live band was that first band I saw, the '69 band, shortly before he broke the Mothers up. He had Don Preston, Artie Tripp on vibes, he had Ian Underwood, Bunk Gardener, I'm not going to list all the guys but that band blew me away more than any other band.
If I had to say objectively what was the greatest band he ever had, and bear in mind that every band he ever had was nothing short of spectacular, I"d say the band he had in the mid-'70s with Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke,Bruce Fowler, Tom Fowler, Jean-Luc Ponty, Ruth Underwood, Chester Thompson and Ralph Humphries; that band, the Zappa/Mothers: Roxy & Elsewhere (DiscReet Records, 1974) was probably his greatest band. Those musicians were ridiculous, and not just technically proficient, for each one of those guys had a personality that they brought into the band that was unreal.
I admired Zappa because he didn't just hire a guys for their technical proficiency, he hired them for what he called "the eyebrows," which was basically their personality.
AAJ: Zappa was a prolific musician; if you had to take just one Zappa album to a desert island which one would it be?
EP: 200 Motels (United Artists, 1971).
EP: Because over the years the orchestral music on that has seeped into my... I'm not even sure how to put it, my psyche, into my heart more than anything. When that album first came out when I was in senior high school I didn't get it, except for the rock tunes. The orchestral music just went over my head. But over the years, especially once I started arranging, and I was also super into classical music like Shostakovich, Prokoviev and Arthur Honegger, influences which I wanted to incorporate into my writing, along with the Charles Tolliver and Woody Shaw influences.
Zappa got me into classical music. Now I find that as I get older and listening to more classical composers that made me more able to understand Zappa's more out there, avant-garde, classical writing. I have to tell you the truth, I never thought about it in those terms until now, so I thank you for that. Aside from 200 Motels, my other desert island Zappa discs would be Burnt Weeny Sandwich (Bizarre, 1970 ) and Lumpy Gravy (Verve, 1968).
AAJ: Have you ever transcribed, or thought about transcribing any of Zappa's guitar solos?
EP: No, I've never even thought about transcribing a Zappa solo. I've transcribed Zappa licks here and there, I mean, we do "Twenty Small Cigars" from Chunga's Revenge (Bizarre, 1970) and there's a couple of licks that I have the trumpets doing, but as far as full guitar solos? No, that would be really hard. Zappa's picking hand was really fast and he liked to play really crazy couplets and weird rhythms and that might be something that I might not do just 'cause it's too hard. I've never thought about doing that.
AAJ: How big a fan are you of Zappa the guitarist, and do you wish he had played more guitar?
EP: To be perfectly honest, the one thing that separates me from my fellow Zappa fanatics is that I like how Zappa plays guitar but he's not one of my favorite guitarists. When it comes to guitar playing I much prefer Jeff Beck. When it comes to solos I like the guys who play fewer notes and play more memorable melodies, guys like Randy California; do you know him?
EP: Spirit, yeah, exactly.
AAJ: Are there any Zappa compositions that you have avoided so far because they are too daunting a proposition to transcribe?
EP: Sure, unquestionably. On Take your clothes off when you dance, we do "Moggio" and there's no way I would have been able to do that if someone hadn't done the transcription for me. I mean, I'm pretty good at this stuff but there are people out there who are better. A guy called Marc Ziegenhagen, an amazing keyboard player, he transcribed "Moggio" from which I made my arrangement. If I thought about it I could come up with some others that I would love to do it but, you know...