By Ed Palermo
As leader of the Ed Palermo Big Band for the past 30 years, it was about 13 years ago, when my boyhood hero, Frank Zappa, died that I decided to put my own original compositions on hold and focus on the music of Zappa. I decided to pay tribute to the man who affected me musically more than anyone before or after. Prior to embarking on this project, my band was pretty much accustomed to outnumbering our audience.
This decision had its good aspects and scary aspects. The good news is that Zappa was astoundingly prolific and left a legacy of hundreds, if not thousands of tunes to choose from. He wrote in a wide variety of styles, obviously doing his homework and writing authentically in whatever genre he was composing in.
The scary news is this: his music is REALLY hard. Some tunes take days to dissect (transcribe). Fortunately, after many years of being hired to transcribe and reinterpret the works of such geniuses as Duke Ellington, Oliver Nelson, Nelson Riddle and many others, I was equipped with the ears to tackle such a project.
But first, let's examine the question of why a composer/arranger should involve himself so deeply in someone else's music, particularly the music of a guy who was never known as a jazz musician. Wouldn't my time be better spent exploring the works of Duke Ellington?
We all know that Duke Ellington is the most important jazz composer/arranger of our time. I can't begin to describe how much I have learned from studying his music. Of course, I haven't dug nearly as deep as David Berger, who is the king of the Ellington transcribers. But I have researched enough to (1) learn a hell of a lot about arranging and (2) fall in love with his music.
So why not pay tribute to a class act like Duke Ellington instead of a scruffy '60s hippy like Frank Zappa? Simple. As great as Duke is, he has little if any relevance to my life. Sure, I could pretend that he does and that every time I hear "In A Sentimental Mood," I break down in tears, but I'd be lying.
Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, once said that Zappa was his Elvis. My sentiments exactly. I would say that Zappa is my Duke Ellington, but I'm afraid it may result in physical violence the next time I go to the Village Vanguard. A more apt comparison would be to say that what Edgard Varèse (avant-garde classical composer who Zappa adored) was to Frank Zappa, Frank Zappa is to me.
On the surface, Zappa may have come across as just another California drug-taking freak. In the early days, he even referred to himself and his entourage as freaks, but it had nothing to do with drugs. He abhorred hippies and their mindless call for Revolution when in reality, they had no idea what they were rebelling against. And Zappa was vehemently anti-drug.
Credibility disclaimer: I have never met Frank Zappa. Never played in his band, never shook his hand, never had any contact with the man. I certainly do not want to misrepresent myself and try to come off as the leading authority on Frank Zappa. I'm just a fan who loves his music enough to devote the last decade- and-a-half to playing his music. All I know about his viewpoints on politics and whatnot are from reading interviews.
But when you put as much time into studying ONE composer's catalogue as I have, you can't help but learn a ton about what made that composer tick. His rhythmic concepts were truly revolutionary. His harmonic imagination was enormously wide and eclectic. But the aspect of Zappa's music that I am the most fascinated by is his melodic sense. His melodies just seem to come out of nowhere, but make perfect musical sense. A song like "Toads Of The Short Forest" from the album Weasels Ripped My Flesh is a great example. A jazz waltz, the melody of which is played by an acoustic guitar through a wah-wah pedal (who else would have thought of that?) flies effortlessly through a complex array of chord changes.
Frank Zappa wasn't what you would call a "jazz musician." In fact, he made fun of jazz and jazz musicians throughout his whole career. But that was Zappa. He derided EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY. You can tell, however, by listening to so much of his music that he really loved jazz. Since I never met him, everything I write about him is conjecture, but listening to a modal masterpiece like "King Kong" proves, at least to my ears, that he had listened to and digested a lot of Miles and Trane. "America Drinks and Goes Home" is a brilliant exercise in II-V-l harmony. And check out his version of Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" from the Broadway the Hard Way CD. This contains one of the most beautiful trumpet solos ever by the great Walt Fowler.
Of course, being an alto saxophonist from the Bird/Cannonball/Phil Woods school, I was taken aback when I read in a DownBeat interview about 25 years ago, that Zappa never liked Charlie Parker. Worse than that, he said he sounded like the same "F" word that Ann Coulter recently called John Edwards. Unforgivable? Perhaps for some, but it couldn't erase my deep love for Zappa's music. People are entitled to their own opinion, except maybe Ann Coulter.
One of the great advantages of performing Zappa's music is that I don't have to 'hippify' it. The music is so complex and sophisticated as it is. One of the problems some jazz musicians fall into when they interpret a pop tune is to condescend by reharmonizing (adding new chords). There's nothing wrong with this practice, of course. A lot of times it yields great results, but more often than not, it just comes off as if he's doing the composer a huge favor. "Gee, it's a good thing I was here to save 'Fool On The Hill' from all that damn simplicity. Paul McCartney owes me big time! I wonder why he hasn't called."
And then there's the issue of soloing over this material. Most bebop is based on ll-V-l harmony. You can't be a jazz musician without studying this intensely some time in your life. It was probably easier to grasp if you were born in the '20s and '30s because it was on the radio all the time, but for '60s guys like me who were brought up on the Beatles, it was a formidable challenge. To this day, as an alto saxophonist, I prefer soloing over bebop to any other music. I'm still very intrigued by navigating melodic lines through those chord changes. But when you perform rock or R&B music, you pretty much have to take a modal approach. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but it can be a challenge to restrain yourself from shoving bebop lines down the throat of an innocent pop tune. I'm in a peculiar situation where I don't love soloing over the music I truly love, like Zappa's. That's okay, though; I just give the solos to the other guys in my band.
I don't consider my Zappa project any kind of crusade or following any trend for that matter. It's just music I love. I'm often asked if the jazz community will ever embrace Zappa's music. I have no idea. I don't even really care. Maybe that's a selfish point of view, but life is short. Why waste time worrying about such stuff. Zappa himself said before he died that he didn't care how he was remembered or even IF he was remembered. Eventually, I and my band will stop doing this Zappa project and go back to my original material, once again happily outnumbering the audience.