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Ed Palermo: Not Only In It For The Money

Duncan Heining By

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It's been twenty years since saxophonist-composer-arranger Ed Palermo and his Big Band began playing the music of Frank Zappa. Twenty years, not a lot of bread but a whole lot of love from fans and musicians alike. Oh No! Not Jazz!! on Cuneiform Records marks the band's fourth Zappa album and the third for that remarkable independent label but it also adds something new to the mix. It's a double CD set with the second CD devoted to Palermo's own stuff and proof, were it needed, of the diversity of his talent.

Palermo's career began in Chicago when he was studying at DePaul University for a Performing Arts degree, playing behind people like Mel Torme, Lena Horne and the ever-wonderful Tony Bennett. A period scuffling in New York followed before he was able to resume anything like the trajectory of his early Chicago career. But Ed Palermo's not complaining. More money and more gigs would be good. Then he could pay the guys in the band more but money ain't everything.

So what is it about Zappa that keeps drawing Palermo back?

"I actually did have a couple of albums before I started doing this but only a couple. It seems like most of my recorded work has been devoted to Frank's music. I started doing my arrangements of Zappa's music about fifteen years ago... No, it must be closer to twenty. I just realised that now. Twenty years I've been doing this. Frank died in December 1993 and our first concert was in June 1994. It was strictly a labour of love—and, of course, it still is. There's no money is this, obviously. (Laughing) But the thing is there was a big demand for it from Zappa fans—and again, still is. It's just been so great. When I start a new arrangement, I think to myself, "Oh man, they're going to love this!" That's the reason why I've kept at it. I just love the music so much and Zappa was so prolific. He wrote so much that I never run out of songs to arrange. There's still songs I want to do of his—I just need to find the time. And the audience for this is just so enthusiastic, it's amazing."

Hearing—and seeing—the band live, it's easy to understand the appeal. The vibe they give out is rich in humour and in the joy of making music together. The first record, Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa (Astor Place) came out in 1997 but it wasn't until 2006 that a follow-up, Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance was released by Cuneiform Records. 2009 saw the equally fine Eddy Loves Frank—says it all really! Now Oh No! Not Jazz!! and there's a real sense that the musicians have grown into this music. There have been changes along the way but Palermo has kept quite a few of the musicians as well.

"You're totally right. We've played so much and, I tell you man, I just feel so blessed that I have this band. We're just like mind-readers with this band. It's better now than it's ever been and one reason is because it's the same guys in the rhythm section. The two keyboard players, the bassist and drummer [Ted Kooshian on electric keyboards, Bob Quaranta on piano, Paul Adamy on electric bass and Ray Marchica drums] have been the same ever since my first album when I was playing original material. Some players have changed, some have stayed. It just happens—people have their own projects, you know. It's not like any of these guys make a living off me—they don't. (Laughs) They just don't lose as much money as I do."

In fact, since 2006, the personnel has stayed pretty intact. It seems wrong to single out individuals from this incredible bunch of musicians but newcomer violinist Katie Jacoby and new(ish)comer guitarist Bruce McDaniel do deserve mention. Jacoby sounds nothing like either Jean-Luc Ponty or Don 'Sugarcane' Harris—more of a classical sound, perhaps—but, man, can she swing! Her skills encouraged Palermo to write a whole new set of chords under her solo on "Chunga's Revenge" and it's one of the record's highlights, as is her playing on Palermo's own "Moosh." McDaniel not only produced Oh No! Not Jazz!! but also the its predecessor Eddy Loves Frank and sings a lot of songs live.

"He's just amazing. I depend on him so much I can't tell you. When my other singer Carl Restivo left to go to California, we just played our gigs instrumentally for a while until my bassist introduced me to Bruce and I just said, 'Oh, my god, this guy is just perfect.' A guy who sings beautifully, plays guitar beautifully and he knows Zappa more than I know Zappa. In fact, he'll correct me. If I do an arrangement that has a wrong note, he'll hear it immediately. So, he is really important to where the band is right now."

When McDaniel takes the solo on "Inca Roads," you can hear Zappa just briefly, like a tip of the hat, and then it's pure Bruce McDaniel. But then as track follows track something new blows you away, whether it's trombonist Joe Fielder and Phil Chester on soprano on "The Dog Breath Variations," trumpeter Ronnie Buttacavoli and tenor saxophonist Bill Straub, Keaton Viavatine on "Lumpy Gravy" or Palermo himself on the lovely, self-penned ballad "Nostalgia Revisited (for Susan)."

Every composer tackling Frank Zappa's music does so in their own fashion. Like God, Frank moved in mysterious ways and, like God, we recreate him in our own image. But Zappa's songs are hardly head-solo-head arrangements, so how does Palermo go about making these tunes work for a jazz big band? "With each CD, I take more liberties. But it's always important to me that the songs are recognizable, no matter how much I change the structures. I think it makes for some fun listening whether you're a hardcore Zappa fan or not. Each song has its own needs. Some songs I just want to make bigger, since I have so many instruments. Other songs inspire me to be creative and I end up changing the structures.

My new album is a perfect example. With "Uncle Meat Variations," I stayed very close to the original album version. But with "Chunga's Revenge," I went in a different direction and I put more of a Mexican-type of groove under it. Then it goes into a section that I wrote entirely. Whenever Frank did "Chunga's Revenge" live, it had that really beautiful bass line but it's really just a song where you jam on one chord. I try and stay away from those one chord jams. So, I decided to write for my great new violinist Katie Jacoby a different set of chords behind her solo. So, sometimes Zappa's song will inspire me to go in a different direction. After all, that is the prerogative of jazz arrangers—that's what we do. I wouldn't even do this project if all I was going to do was replicate what Zappa did. If you do that all you get is second-rate versions of the originals."

Though jazz was an influence for Zappa, it was far from being his only one. How does Palermo understand FZ's relationship to jazz?

"You're right. Jazz was part of the puzzle for Frank but clearly an important part. I think the most obvious example of this is his modal masterpiece, "King Kong" from Uncle Meat, but you can go back to his second album, Absolutely Free and hear several jazzy segments, but they're usually done as a parody, like on "America Drinks and Goes Home.""

At the same time, Palermo has clearly decided it was time to showcase his own tunes—along with a great, if all too brief take on The Beatles' "She's So Heavy." The second CD makes for an excellent contrast and it's no surprise just how good these tunes and arrangements are.

"One thing people might say is that mine's a little bit jazzier. The first two tunes are really jazzy but the third tune is really my way of saying 'Thank you' to Frank Zappa. That's "Why is the Doctor Barking?" It's like cartoon music but very much inspired by Frank. Most people will hear that. To make a long story short—I think it's just a jazzier approach."

In fact, there's an echo of the great Thad Jones in there. It's a point Palermo is more than happy to acknowledge.

"Thad Jones is a major, major influence—a major influence. I used to study his scores, so I think you really hit the nail on the head. There are others too but Thad Jones is huge. Did you ever see them at the Village Vanguard? They're called the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra now but they're still the best band in the world. The guy's in the band they write their own material but they still play Thad's music but I will always be in debt and in awe to Thad Jones."

So what is that binds these two different but complementary CDs together? Palermo laughs and then says,

"I will say this about the whole disc. I consider this a kind of concept album. Kind of like Sergeant Pepper, just not nearly as good. The thread that unites the two discs is one of humour. I think that there's just funny stuff going through the album, particularly the singer Mike James. Did you get to the hidden track at the end? To me that ended the whole thing on a joke. I can't ever imagine doing an album in future that doesn't have a funny concept. That's the way I want to present myself to the world. Frank Zappa once said in an interview, he couldn't stand it when people take themselves too seriously. And I feel the same way about myself. Sure when I sit down and write music, I'm as serious as you can get but as far as the vibe I want to present to the world, it's, 'Hey, come on. Let's have some fun.'"

Palermo had some real luck in Chicago, when he was studying there in the late 70s. One of the veteran session guys took him under his wing and that led to gigs with several of America's finest singers.

"He got me these gigs I didn't nearly deserve. I think there were guys older than me who resented the hell out of me because there I was still in college and I was getting gigs with the best—Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme. Unbelievable luck! Then when I decided to move to New York, I flushed all that down the toilet. I didn't have that daddy figure anymore (laughing). There was nobody in New York willing to accept that role. I didn't work for a year but then I would up doing three years with Tito Puente. I played Latin music for three years and I learned a whole lot because I knew nothing about Latin music. So, I learned a lot from him."

At that time, Palermo played tenor but when he switched from tenor to alto and started arranging, things really came together. As he says,

"I was just writing and arranging every waking moment of the day. Then through the years, I've done some things I'm really proud of. Like I arranged most of the music on a concert that James Brown sung at the Hollywood Bowl. Three months before James Brown died, he did this concert and the guy who hired me, who is probably one of the greatest musicians I ever met—his name's Christian McBride and we're really good friends. Anyway, he got me that gig to transcribe the music for a James Brown record called Soul On Top. That was a really cool weekend because I had flown my own band to do Zappa's music at the Detroit Jazz Festival and when the guys flew home, I flew to LA to do the James Brown thing."

Maybe he doesn't have the profile of a Bob Belden or a Maria Schneider but, as he admits, his professional ambition is not nearly up to the same level as his artistic ambition. Along the road, there have been projects based on the music of Paul Butterfield and on Edgar Winter, both major figures and influences for Palermo. Winter played on Palermo's first record, alongside David Sanborn and Randy Brecker back in 1981 and that started a friendship that continues. It's a long-standing aim of Palermo to put together a project with Winter.

"We've been talking forever about doing something live. In fact, we were just talking again about that. We're trying to work it out because he lives on the other coast and he's got a busy touring schedule but we're working on it now."

More immediately, there's a big band tour of the Mid-West planned for the summer. Sadly, Europe's going to have to wait a while longer to hear this great band live. Short of a major sponsorship deal, the sheer cost is prohibitive and chances of a deal like that seem remote. Maybe Sting or Madonna could adopt them. One thing's certain though there will be another Zappa record sometime and let's hope that there's more Big Band Palermo too. This guy's a contender.

Ed Palermo Big Band Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa 1997 (Astor Place) Ed Palermo Big Band Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance 2006 (Cuneiform) Ed Palermo Big Band Eddy Loves Frank 2009 (Cuneiform) Ed Palermo Big Band Oh No! Not Jazz!! 2014 (Cuneiform)

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