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.

AAJ: Your musicians are tremendous, but it must give you a few more grey hairs each time a member leaves as you have to find a suitably skilled replacement and familiarize them with your arrangements.

EP: Well, yes, except it almost never happens. It's been a really long time since I had a musician quit. It would be heartbreaking and very frustrating but for the fact that I live in News York City where there are so many musicians and so many people to replace you. That said, if anyone left this band I would really miss them, because not only are they the best musicians in the world, but we've also become really good friends. Their dedication to me and to this project is something that I'll never be able to repay.

AAJ: On your big band Zappa CDs you personally don't take too many solos; why is that?

EP: When we play live people ask me that all the time, but my answer to that is that the guys in my band play so good, especially my saxophone guys, that I want everyone to hear them. They play rings around me. I would rather hear them than hear myself. When we play live I just shake my head and think, "Holy moly, where did you learn that?" [laughs]

AAJ: Let me take you back a bit and ask you about the first time you saw Zappa and the Mothers; what do you remember about the gig and what effect did it have on you?

EP: It had a huge effect on me, a huge effect. It's like it happened yesterday. I was 14-years-old and I saw him in Philadelphia in February 1969. It was right before Uncle Meat (Bizarre, 1969) came out, and they were touring to promote Cruising with Ruben and the Jets (Verve, 1968). They were doing that sort of material but they were also doing the more avant-garde sort of stuff like "Uncle Meat" and "King Kong." The set I saw was so interesting in the diversity of the music, from doo wop to classical, or whatever "Uncle Meat" is.

I just couldn't believe it. The band was so tight. The horn section was playing these melodies so tight, and man, the band looking so freaky. The whole thing was visually unbelievable. And of course Zappa was the coolest looking guy on the planet, just leading everything, and you couldn't help being mesmerized by him.

Everything about it—the organization, the creativity, the tightness, how he'd put his hand up and—'boom!'—it was a brand new grove. He rehearsed that band like crazy; Zappa made them rehearse on Christmas day, or New Year's Day, it didn't matter to Frank. Half the band didn't read music so they had to learn the music by rote.

This is stuff I've learned reading interviews with Frank and various band members. Bear in mind that I never met Frank; I never played in his band. Some people are under the impression that since I do this music I had some relationship with Frank, which I never did. But I don't want to misrepresent myself, I am strictly a fan. I am a huge Zappa fan.

AAJ: How did your interest in jazz come about?

EP: Well, I went to college from '72 to '76 and completely changed my thing then. Although I was still following Zappa, I had become a hardcore bebop saxophone player. Oddly enough, the major inspiration for me, and I'd been playing saxophone since I was a kid, was Edgar Winter. He was known as this rock 'n' roll guy but very few people realize that he's an amazing jazz composer and a super jazz saxophonist. Winter played a lot like the guys who became my heroes, Cannonball Adderley and Phil Woods.

AAJ: Could you recommend an Edgar Winter CD that people should check out?

Edgar WinterEP: Yes, yes yes! Entrance (Sony, 1970). If you get this album it will freak you out how great it is. It has plenty of rock and blues on it but the jazz stuff and his classical harmonic knowledge is unbelievable. I have to say that my band does that entire album. We've played it live several times. We did it with Will Lee, the bassist from the David Letterman Show; he's an Edgar Winter fanatic too so he was one of the singers we used.

When I transcribed that stuff I learned so much, and that's after years of transcribing Zappa. I mean, Edgar Winter's stuff was so fascinating it was like unearthing treasures. I'm a huge fan of Edgar Winter. I'm dying to have him play with my band some day. We've discussed it but it never looks like it's going to happen.

AAJ: Hey, you never know. What was your first important gig?

EP: Well, after college I moved to New York and started playing with a guy called Tito Puente...

AAJ: A guy called Tito Puente or the Tito Puente?

EP: Right, Tito Puente. Around that time I started making my main artistic expression through writing and composing, though still playing all the while. I put a big band together around '79 doing my original material and various things. When Zappa died in '93, I decided to stop doing my own material for a while and dedicate myself to my hero. He's always been one of my main influences.

AAJ: What prompted you to put together a big band in the first place; it's asking for trouble, isn't it?

Ed PalermoEP: Well, putting together a big band is a lot harder than putting a four- piece band together, that's for sure. It's funny because I wasn't really into arranging when I was at college; I was more into playing the saxophone and writing jazz tunes. Then when I went to New York I went to the Village Vanguard and I saw Woody Shaw. He had a group of four horns and I listened to that and I thought: "Huh, I think I could do that!" I love Woody Shaw.

I should also mention that there's a big band album which to this day is one of my favorite albums, and it's a Charles Tolliver album called Impact (Charly, 1975). I've actually never been a huge fan of big bands, you know I never really dug Buddy Rich or Woody Herman. When it came to jazz I liked the smaller groups, except for when I heard Charles Tolliver. Just don't drive when you're listening to it or you'll end up going at 90 mph. And that, and after seeing Woody Shaw I thought: "Man, that's the kind of thing I want to do." So, I was really inspired by those two things.

Then I just started writing stuff, from scratch. I mean, I was completely untrained as a writer. It was complete trial and error. I would tape every rehearsal and then go home and listen to the cassette, because that's what we had back in the '70s, and I'd get my score paper out and listen and go: "Well, that didn't work," and I'd start erasing and writing new stuff. That band was only a nine-piece band, with five horns.

So I started small. But then a friend of mine who was playing with Buddy Rich said: "Why don't you write some big band stuff, maybe I can get Buddy to buy something. So, I started to write some bigger band stuff, although I never did get a chance to sell it to Buddy Rich. However, as soon as I started writing for big bands I thought: "Man, this is cool! Maybe I can start doing the Charles Tolliver type thing." I then became obsessed with arranging.



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