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

Ian Patterson By

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AAJ: When did you first record?

EP: I recorded my first album, Plays the Music of Frank Zappa (Vile Heifer Records) in'82, and now I sell it as Papier Mache, but you can only get it through me. Then in '87 I did another album which is also out of print called Ping Pong, (Pro Arte Records, 1987), named after the Wayne Shorter song. The next time I recorded was my first Zappa album, and that was in '97.

AAJ: What sort of crowds did you play to at the beginning of your big band career?

EP: When I used to play gigs before doing the Zappa material the band would generally outnumber the audience.

AAJ: That must have been pretty discouraging, no?

EP: : Check this out, man: when I was in college in Chicago my brother and I went to a club called The Brown Shoe, and we saw Return to Forever. They had just released Light as a Feather (Polydor, 1972) and at that gig he had Michael Brecker with him and Steve Gadd, and apart from me and my brother there were maybe three other people in the audience. The same thing happened when we went to see Sun Ra; there were just a handful of people and Sun Ra's got this 20-piece band! It was surreal, man.

We had some gigs that we did well at but for the most part it was really an up- hill battle to get the people to come out and hear an unknown big band. Then we started doing Zappa, and keep in mind that Frank had just died; we were playing regularly at a club called The Bitter End, once a month, doing my own material, and drawing very small audiences.

Then one of those months I decided we were going to do a month of Frank Zappa music, though it took me a couple of months to write all the material for one show. Around that time the Internet had just started becoming more used, and word got out via the Internet that there's a big band in New York City doing a night of Frank Zappa music. This is about six months after Frank died, because the concert was June of '94.

So now I go to my monthly gig where I'm used to seeing hardly everybody and the place is swamped! I meet people in the audience who drove down from Montreal, drove up from South Carolina; these people had never heard a note that my band had ever done, but they were so hungry to hear Zappa that they came from all over the place.

Ed Palermo Big BandWe played our show and the audience reaction is unreal. I'm thinking: "Holy shit! I've really got something here!" But still I guess I'm shortsighted because I thought I'd go back and do my own stuff the next month, figuring I'd just do the Zappa thing as one night. Then my brother told me, "Ed, why don't you call a bigger club in town and tell them what the reaction was, and maybe they'll book you?"

So, I wrote the guy at The Bottom Line a letter and to make a long story short we ended up playing every couple of months for nine years. All the time I was arranging new Zappa material and we'd change the show each time. We were rehearsing once a week and doing the gig about once every six weeks. It was a total labor of love, there was certainly no money in that. I lost money on it. That's pretty much my history up until now.

AAJ: Taking you back a little to Tito Puente, whose band you played in for three years, how did that experience prepare you for leading your own big band?

EP: That's a great question; I figure it had a major influence. One thing, when I started playing with Tito, I hardly heard that music, salsa and mambo and things. I was woefully ignorant of the music. It really took a while to get the groove of it, but they hung in there with me. I kept expecting to be fired at any minute; I was a total gringo.

AAJ: How did you get that gig then in the first place? What sort of audition did you have?

EP: Well, as most of these things happen; at that time that band was only using two saxophone players, alto and tenor, and every now and then for certain gigs they'd hire a baritone player. Then a couple of guys left the band and the guy who played tenor, who I'd met at a jam session, said: "Hey, can you play this Saturday? We've got three gigs. Can you do it?" Now, when I moved to New York I didn't work for a whole year, and I was getting ready to move back to Chicago because I was so disheartened about how bad it was going in New York, so I go to this gig, three gigs in one night with Tito Puente.

On baritone sax that night was Ronnie Cuber, and Ronnie is one of the greatest, if not the greatest baritone players in the world, so it was cool to hang out with him and be part of this scene. It was surreal to me. There are certain elements of that music, like the bass lines which are so bizarre where they lay on the beat. Plus the fact that visually, socially, all the women and all the men in the audience are dressed to the hilt, like they're going to the Queen's Ball.

At that point the guy who I was subbing for decided to quit the band, and they thought I'd done pretty good and so I was with them for three years. Right about that time was when I was really into the Charles Tolliver album, and I'd just seen Woody Shaw, so I'm starting to think: "Boy, I really want to start arranging."

Now, Tito Puente is a great arranger and we would play his arrangements. We were playing seven nights a week and sometimes there were two, three or four jobs in one night, so we were playing constantly. So just by reading the charts I would think: "Oh, so this is how the sax plays against the trumpet." I was learning all this stuff. It was a huge, huge influence on me and a great learning experience.

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?

Frank ZappaEP: 200 Motels (United Artists, 1971).

AAJ: Why?

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?

AAJ: Spirit.

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...



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