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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."

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