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Ed Palermo: We're Only In It For The Music

Ian Patterson By

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It's got to be love, hasn't it? Why else would someone bother to transcribe 200 of Frank Zappa's tunes? For what other reason would someone dedicate himself for over 15 years to presenting his arrangements of Zappa's music in the setting of a 17-piece jazz big band, and at a loss to boot?

Yes, it's safe to say that saxophonist, composer and arranger Ed Palermo really, really loves Frank.

Ed Palermo (center, on alto) with Ed Palermo Big Band

Palermo's love affair with the music of Zappa began in 1969, when as a receptive 14-year-old, he saw Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in concert, an experience which would forever change the way Palermo saw music. Forty years on, the flames of love are undiminished, and Palermo and his wonderfully talented big band have released their third CD of Palermo's adventurous arrangements of Zappa's music, Eddy Loves Frank (Cuneiform, 2009). This latest recording in Palermo's ongoing Zappa project shows Zappa's challenging compositions in a whole new light. At the same time, loudly making the case for Palermo's big band as being one of the very best on the contemporary jazz scene.

Sadly, Eddy's love is unrequited, as Zappa passed away in '93, and never heard Palermo's heartfelt tribute to his vast musical legacy. Listening to Palermo's bold, swinging reinventions of Zappa's music one cannot help but feel that Zappa would have approved mightily.

All About Jazz: Firstly, congratulations on Eddy Loves Frank, I'm sure you must be pretty pleased with the way it turned out.

Ed Palermo: : Yes, it's the best thing I've ever done in my life.

AAJ: Your previous Zappa-inspired CD, Take Your Clothes off When You Dance (Cuneiform, 2006) was most impressive, but I think this latest CD is even stronger.

EP: Thank you so much; I loved that one too, but what I like about Eddy Loves Frank is that I was more creative with the structures of the songs. I decided to take more chances and to get further away from Frank Zappa's versions of them.

AAJ: It must have taken a long time to transcribe these songs in the first place, any of them, but particularly "Echidna's Arf (of You)" and "Night School."

EP: Well, that's an interesting thing. For both of those songs, as far as the transcription goes, I had help. I mention in the liner notes that 99 percent of the music that my band does I did the transcriptions myself, but the "Night School" transcription was done by a friend of mine named Tom Trapp, and "Echidna's Arf..." was transcribed by Robbie Mangano. I took their transcriptions and made my arrangements of them.

After the transcription is done then I have the fun part of making the arrangement out of it. For example, "Don't you ever wash that thing" was not an easy one to transcribe; I would say that it probably took me five hours. Once all the notes are down the way Frank Zappa's band played them, then I think to myself: "Right, what do I want to do with this?" I wanted to use all the parts that Frank wrote but to juggle them around, to make it more interesting for me but mainly so that the hardcore Zappa fans can listen to it and be surprised.

One of my main goals in this whole project is to give a big musical rush to the hardcore Zappa fans, because my philosophy is that whether you ever heard Zappa's music, or liked it or not, I think anyone can get into what I'm doing here but I want to focus on the hardcore Zappa fans. I want the hardcore fans to be really surprised, and there's no way I can surprise them if I structure everything the way Frank does it. But it's much more rewarding for me and the audience, I believe, if they are familiar with the song but they don't know what part's coming next. For example, on "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing," I took Zappa's coda and used it as my intro. Then I did a lot of slicing and dicing, just juggling stuff around because it's very important to me to put the surprise element in this music.

AAJ: You make it sound a lot simpler than it probably was. How much rehearsal time was needed to nail this material before you could record it to your satisfaction?

Ed Palermo Big BandEP: A lot, a lot. It's interesting, because with "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?" and "Echidna's Arf...," we'd been playing those songs live for about seven or eight years but playing them in a way much closer to the way Zappa recorded them. So by the time it came to record Eddy Loves Frank all the guys knew those parts real well, but I had to confuse matters by writing completely new arrangements. So yeah, we had to rehearse quite a bit for the CD.

When we used to play at The Bottom Line, New York, and we played there from '94 to 2003, we used to rehearse once a week, and each rehearsal was only two hours. Compare that to Zappa's band—he used to rehearse six hours a day, six days a week.

AAJ: That's maybe why so many musicians came and went in his bands.

EP: Exactly, although Frank was able to pay his guys real well and I definitely cannot. The guys in my band are doing this strictly out of love, and the fact that they can play material this difficult and nail it so incredibly well, and make next to nothing, I am forever in their debt.


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