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

Ian Patterson By

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AAJ: Life's too short?

EP: Yeah, exactly, life's too short [laughs].

AAJ: You've enjoyed the collaborations of quite a few of Zappa's ex- sidemen; what has been their reaction to your ongoing Zappa project?

EP: Oh, very positive, very positive. Napoleon (Murphy Brock) in particular. He's a big Stan Kenton fan, and the very first time he sang with us he thought that this is what he wanted to do because he grew up with the music of Stan Kenton, though truth be told I'm not at all influenced by Stan Kenton.

AAJ: I don't know anybody who is. What does Napoleon love about Stan Kenton?

EP: I don't really know but with Napoleon I think it's just that he loved the sound of a big band. You know when a singer comes up and he has a big band behind him that's a big rush. It's a really great feeling to have all those horns supporting you.

Ike Willis sang with us on several occasions, Mike Keneally always has a blast singing and playing guitar with us. They have very positive things to say about playing with us.

AAJ: And what about their memories of playing with Zappa?

EP: Believe it or not I don't really talk to them that much about Frank. I do ask them about how he rehearsed a particular song and things like that but I never ask the personal questions about the groupies and stuff like that because I figure there are certain things they might just want to keep quiet. I think that they all love and cherish the time they had with Frank. I think all three of those guys would say it was a completely irreplaceable experience.

AAJ: What about the Zappa estate, the Zappa family; are they pleased about what you're doing or are there any legal complications in presenting Zappa's music live? Are they supportive of you?

EP: Right now there's no problem, but are they supportive of me? No. Gail, Frank's wife, doesn't like anybody like me, and another band called Project/Object, doing this because she thinks we're making money off it and in fact that couldn't be further from the truth. I can speak for all of us when I say that this project is costing us money.

The only person who can make money on this is Dweezil (Zappa) because he's the only guy who has that kind of name recognition and could draw they type of audiences that would garner a profit. I do very well now as far as audiences coming out to hear me but I'm not just doing strictly Zappa now. It's mostly Zappa but I'm also doing jazz versions of my other favorite groups like Procol Harum, Todd Rungdren, and I have a whole project where I do Paul Butterfield's music. It is a mixture of stuff. In the past I have got "cease and desist" letters from the Zappa estate, so to answer your question they are not supportive of it and I seriously doubt they ever will be.

AAJ: Something that I'm curious about is the U.S. Army Blues Band, whom you've conducted doing Zappa's music; the U.S. Army and Frank Zappa seems like an odd combination, no?

EP: There's a story to that. On the first Zappa album I did, Ed Palermo Plays the Music of Frank Zappa my lead trumpeter was a woman called Liesl Whitaker, and let me just say she was probably the greatest trumpet player I ever had in my band; she decided she wanted to have a more stable life and she got this offer to be the lead trumpet player for the Army Jazz Big Band

AAJ: What? You don't have to be in the army to play for the army big band?

EP: No, no, she had to join the army; that was the only down side [laughs].

AAJ: Don't tell me she's playing Zappa in Iraq now!

EP: Right, exactly. At the time she was married and wanted to have a baby, and getting insurance would have been impossible for a New York trumpet player, but the army pays for everything so she joined the army. She was immediately offered musical director status and since she and I have always been very close friends she would periodically call me and say: "Hey, let's do a concert of Zappa stuff."

The Army band are incredible musicians, I mean, they nailed this stuff. Their brass section is unreal.

AAJ: Do you send them your arrangements months beforehand? How does it work?

EP: I send them PDFs, before it was mail copies. Then Liesl will give each one of them their music. They'll practice on their own and then have two or three rehearsals and then I'll go and rehearse with them to get everything all ironed out. That's how we do it.

I've done it that way in Europe too, at the festival in Umea, Sweden, in Finland in Helsinki, and in Norway. That's always a fun thing to do. We played at a yearly Zappa festival in Germany, called Zappenale; I took a small version of the band there, we had like six horns and rhythm section and it was the most amazing concert I think I've ever played. There were two thousand people standing up front and going crazy with the music, but when the music got soft you could hear a pin drop. It was unreal.

I haven't been asked to Europe in a while though. I hope that changes with this new CD, but we'll find out. I haven't gone to England with this music yet and that's something I really want to do; England and Italy.

AAJ: Do you think Zappa would be chuckling to himself to know that the US Army are playing his music. It's kind of ironic, no?

EP: I think about that all the time. Sometimes I wonder what Frank's wife would say; I wonder if she would try to stop a concert like that. Even though I'm a proud liberal we do need our armed services and the people in the armed services do a very important job. I'm not too crazy a lot of the time about what the people in the White House have them do, but I have deep, deep respect for the people in the army.

Liesl actually went to Iraq with several people from the band as a show of support for the troops, because those troops are in a very, very bad way, and now they're coming back with post traumatic stress disorders and stuff like that. I don't feel I have to apologize to anyone for doing this music with the Army band. Would Frank be chuckling? I don't know man [laughs]. Another question people ask me is if Frank would like what we do with this music. I don't know, but I'd like to think he would.

AAJ: I'm sure he'd love it. I feel he'd appreciate the recognition of the seriousness, the complexity of his music, the beauty of his art.

EP: I really thank you for saying that. I'd like to think so too. But I don't lose any sleep over it though.

AAJ: Zappa wanted to be a serious composer but do you think he had a certain degree of insecurity, and that maybe all the zaniness in his music was a kind of mask which he partially hid behind? Do you think maybe he didn't have the full confidence to only do serious composition?

Frank Zappa The BiographyEP: That's an interesting viewpoint; I've never heard anyone with that particular diagnosis. You may be right but I would say, judging by reading his book and stuff, that more than anything he loved composing and that he would probably have spent most of his time writing and conducting if he had the chance, but usually those projects cost him money, and in his book he says that.

He was totally self-taught, which is amazing considering how well he knew the vocabulary of people like Schoenberg, Webern and Varese. Considering how he was able to orchestrate that stuff ad how to write that amazing music I can see how he wouldn't have any trepidation at all.

However, I can tell you I am basically self taught too, and if I was Zappa and I would go up against people who had gone through conservatories and got PHDs in composition and who have won Pulitzer prizes for composition, if it was me, I would be as nervous as hell. I'd have so little confidence, but I don't think that was Zappa's thing; I believe Zappa had the utmost confidence and rightfully so because his music was amazing.

AAJ: Did you read the Barry Miles book on Zappa? [Frank Zappa: The Biography (Atlantic Books, 2005)]

EP: Yes I did. I thought it was fascinating. The only thing he wrote that I totally disagree with was that Zappa wasn't an intellectual. I think Zappa was a highly intellectual guy.

AAJ: Coming back to Eddy Loves Frank, you have an arrangement of "America the Beautiful" which, once past the vocals, is one of the most beautiful parts of the album. It's the sort of song that Zappa, were he alive today, would parody as a kind of finger in the eye of the American government. Tell us a little about this song.

EP: It's interesting that you bring that up because in his '88 tour, his last tour, he did do "America the Beautiful," and he did it more as a Ray Charles gospel-type thing. The hardcore Zappa fans immediately think that I'm doing Frank's version, which I don't do at all. My version has nothing to do with Zappa at all.

I can tell you where that arrangement came from; I wrote it right after 9/11. The band was playing at The Bottom Line less than a mile from Ground Zero and there were times right after 9/11 when we would do our shows and at the same time there would be people digging up bodies—the police, the fire department and so on. These people were risking their lives and they also made me think of my father who's a WW II hero with a Silver Star. I started thinking about real heroes and how much in awe of all these people I am. That's who I wrote that arrangement for.

That arrangement is totally unlike Zappa because I am totally wearing my heart on my sleeve. Zappa hardly ever did that; Zappa's emotion was a different type of emotion. This is more like what my own original music is like.

Musically speaking I can tell you that I based the chord changes on one of my favorite Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young songs. It's from Déjà vu (Atlantic Records, 1970), and it's the next to last song, a medley of three songs, "Whiskey Boot Hill," "Down, Down, Down" and "Country Girl," and that to me is a desert island song. I just messed around with the chord changes and that's how I came up with the arrangement, and the chords on the organ solo and the guitar solo are totally influenced by that Neil Young song.

AAJ: How important a musical figure do you think Zappa is?

EP: It's not an easy question; I would say that his music played by other people will kind of always be on the fringe. Even when Zappa was alive he had a very hard time getting on the radio anyway. Even on Classic Rock stations they never play Zappa. Are you talking about jazz or classical or what?



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