The Ed Palermo Big Band is Making America Un-Great Again with a Brilliant Blast of Anglophilia, transforming British Rock Treasures into Wildly Inventive Jazz Vehicles on the Double Album: The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2
(Cuneiform Records). From The Beatles
, The Rolling Stones
and Jeff Beck
to King Crimson
, and Jethro Tull
, Palermo’s 18- piece ensemble Storms the British Invasion and Plants the American Flag (upside down).
Crazy times call for outrageous music, and few jazz ensembles are better prepared to meet the surreality of this reality-TV-era than the antic and epically creative Ed Palermo Big Band. The New Jersey saxophonist, composer and arranger is best known for his celebrated performances interpreting the ingenious compositions of Frank Zappa
, an extensive body of work documented on previous Cuneiform albums such as 2006’s Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance
and 2009’s Eddy Loves Frank.
His fifth project for the label, The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2
is a love letter to the rockers who ruled the AM and FM airwaves in the 1960s via successive waves of the British Invasion. Featuring largely the same stellar cast of players as last year’s gloriously eclectic One Child Left Behind,
the 18-piece EPBB lovingly reinvents songs famous and obscure, leaving them readily recognizable and utterly transformed. The first installments in what he hopes to be an ongoing project (he is currently working on an Un-American Songbook, Volume 3
), these two volumes give a whole new meaning to Swinging London.Volume 1
kicks off with guitarist/vocalist Bruce McDaniel belting Lennon and McCartney’s “Good Morning, Good Morning” (Palermo obsessives will notice that the track opens with a bleating goat, which is rumored to be the same creature heard at the end of “One Child Left Behind”…how’s that for continuity?) The Beatles provide the widest thread running through the project, including an instrumental version of “Eleanor Rigby” that’s a tour de force by violinist Katie Jacoby (who also tears up King Crimson’s prog rock masterpiece “Larks’ Tongue in Aspic, Part 2”).
Palermo deploys his surging horns on an ecstatically sanguinary romp through Blodwyn Pig’s “Send Your Son to Die,” and delivers another blast of brass on the extended arrangement of Nicky Hopkins’ “Edward, The Mad Shirt Grinder,” a piece introduced on Quicksilver Messenger Service’s album Shady Grove. A pedant might quibble that a recording by a San Francisco band doesn’t belong in “The Great Un-American Songbook”, but was there a more British Brit than Hopkins, the era’s definitive session keyboardist? Anyway, the picaresque piece provides the players with a consistently inspiring vehicle for improvising, including Ben Kono’s torrid tenor, John Bailey’s thoughtful and beautifully calibrated trumpet, and another arresting violin solo by Jacoby.
More than any other EPBB release, “The Great Un-American Songbook” is like rummaging around Palermo’s record collection and playing tracks at random after imbibing an espresso-laced bottle of absinth. He’s the first to admit that the album is a highly personal and nostalgia-induced undertaking. “Almost everything I do lately is reliving my past,” Palermo says. “With the craft and skill I’ve developed being an arranger for all these years, I can now take those songs that I grew up with and loved, and reinterpret them. I picked my favorite songs, songs that I’m going to want to hear and play a lot. There’s really no other way to explain my selection process.”Volume 2
opens with another rule-breaking wild card, as Palermo mashes up the Berkeley punk band Green Day’s bitter indictment “American Idiot” with the point-counterpoint exchange of the West Side Story anthem “America.” In his completely unnecessary defense, Palermo points out that he’s inspired by the version of “America” that Keith Emerson recorded with his pre-ELP band The Nice, rather than the Broadway cast album or film soundtrack. Jethro Tull’s “Beggar’s Farm” features an appropriately charged Ben Kono flute solo, while also unleashing Bruce McDaniel’s vocals, which register just the right tone of reverent irreverence (or is that irreverent reverence?). There are far too many highlights to mention them all, but Napoleon Murphy Brock’s vocals on The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” sounds like a lost Zappa outtake (Zappologists will catch numerous Zappa quotes and references laced throughout the project).
Speaking of irreverence, Palermo populates the Songbook with a vivid cast of characters providing some running commentary, including his fey executive producer, Edvard Loog Wanker III, Pete Best, and Ringo Starr’s long-lost cousin, Mick Starkey, who ends the album with a brief blast of Beatlemania on “I Want to Be Your Man” and “Good Night.” But don’t miss the hilariously majestic hidden track featuring the cranky but always-game crooner Mike James (last heard pondering the meaning of it all on One Child’s “Is That All There Is?”). By the end of the long and winding road through Palermo’s musical backpages there’s no doubt that his nostalgia is our delight, as vintage rock songs make for state-of-the-art jazz.
“Anything can be grist for the mill,” Palermo says. “Once I start an arrangement I get so into it. I’m going to put my spin on it.”
In many ways, Palermo’s career is a case study in getting the last laugh. Born in Ocean City, New Jersey on June 14, 1954, he grew up in the cultural orbit of Philadelphia, which was about an hour drive away. He started playing clarinet in elementary school, and soon turned to the alto saxophone. He also took up the guitar, and credits his teenage obsession with Zappa to opening his ears to post-bop harmonies and improvisation.
Palermo caught the jazz bug while attending DePaul University, and took to the alto sax with renewed diligence inspired by Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley, and Edgar Winter (the subject of an upcoming EPBB project). Before he graduated he was leading his own band and making a good living as a studio player recording commercial jingles. But like so many jazz musicians he answered New York’s siren call, moving to Manhattan in 1977. After a year of playing jam sessions and scuffling, Palermo landed a coveted gig with Tito Puente, a four-year stint that immersed him in Afro-Cuban music.
An encounter with trumpeter Woody Shaw’s septet at the Village Vanguard in the late 1970s stoked his interest in writing and arranging for multiple horns, and by the end of the decade he had launched a nine-piece rehearsal band with five horns. Between Don Sebesky’s well-regarded book “The Contemporary Arranger” and advice from Dave Lalama and Tim Ouimette
Palermo made his recording debut in 1982, an impressive session featuring heavyweights such as David Sanborn, Edgar Winter and Randy Brecker. As a consummate studio cat and sideman, he toured and recorded with an array of stars, including Aretha Franklin, Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, Lou Rawls, Melba Moore, The Spinners, and many others. As an arranger, he’s written charts for the Tonight Show Band, Maurice Hines, Eddy Fischer, and Melissa Walker. Employed frequently by bass star Christian McBride for a disparate array of projects, Palermo has written arrangements for a James Brown concert at the Hollywood Bowl, a Frank Sinatra tribute featuring Kurt Elling, Seth McFarland, John Pizzarelli, and a 20-minute medley of Wayne Shorter tunes for the New Jersey Ballet.
Palermo had been leading his big band for more than a decade before the Zappa concept started coming together. Inspired by electric guitar master Mike Keneally, who performed with Zappa on some of his final concerts before his death in 1993, Palermo decided to arrange a program of 12 Zappa tunes. When the time came to debut the material at one of the band’s regular gigs at the Bitter End in early 1994, a sold-out crowd greeted the band.
The Ed Palermo Big Band earned international attention with its 1997 debut “The Ed Palermo Big Band Plays Frank Zappa” on Astor Place Records. With Palermo’s brilliant arrangements and soloists such as Bob Mintzer, Chris Potter, Dave Samuels, Mike Stern, and Mike Keneally, the album made an undisputable case for the Zappa jazz concept. His first album of Zappa tunes on Cuneiform Records, called “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance”, came out in 2006, followed in 2009 by “Eddy Loves Frank”. But while Palermo has written more than 300 Zappa charts, he’s anything but a one-trick pony. Recent releases like 2014’s “Oh No! Not Jazz!!” and 2016’s “One Child Left Behind”, both on Cuneiform, featured a bountiful selection of his original compositions and material by composers not named Frank Zappa.
Nothing demonstrates the ensemble’s ongoing vitality better than the stellar cast of players, with longtime collaborators such as violinist Katie Jacoby, baritone saxophonist Barbara Cifelli, drummer Ray Marchica, and keyboardist Ted Kooshian. Many of these top-shelf musicians have been in the band for more than a decade, and they bring wide ranging experience, expert musicianship and emotional intensity to Palermo’s music. From the first note, well, after the goat, the band manifests greatness in a truly Un-American cause.
To purchase: The Ed Palermo Big Band's “The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2” is available through Cuneiform Records, Amazon and palermobigband.com.