THE ED PALERMO BIG BAND
‘Eddy Loves Frank’- a review and interview by Phil Jackson
Ed Palermo is back with a third collection of fantastic interpretations of the music of Frank Zappa entitled ‘Eddy Loves Frank’ and this is one is every bit as good as its predecessor ‘Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance’. Let me run you through Ed’s selections. First up is ‘Night School’ where Ed himself takes the alto sax solo. Then there’s a deliciously funky/ complicated swing jazz 10 minute version of ‘Echidna’s Arf (Of You) with no fewer than six solos on saxes, trombone and trumpet and immediately recognisable as prototypically Zappa. The heart and soul of the man is in here- that’s how good it is, and, hey, at times it could be Henry Mancini arranging this! I am already looking forward to ‘Regyptian Strut’ and before I know where I am it’s here as good as I’ve ever heard or imagined it. Phil Chester and Joe Fiedler provide the solos this time on soprano sax and trombone respectively. ‘Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?’ features Ted Kooshian’s Kurzweil, a sweet solo by Palermo and also breaks by drummer Ray Marchica and an unassuming but very tasteful guitar solo by Bruce McDaniel, who also produces the album.
The greatly respected writer Richie Unterberger makes a good point in the ‘All Music’ guide when he refers to Palermo giving Zappa’s music ‘more of a jazzy big band swing’ and providing en entry point for listeners who ‘might be put off by the more jagged ugliness that Zappa was often wont to insert into his own renditions’. Ed himself talks of the ‘natural evolution’ of his own musical approach, one in which he feels ‘less constrained to follow Zappa’s structural formats and freer to manipulate the structures’.
Back to the CD and Bob Quaranta contributes piano solos to an urgent version of ‘Dupree’s Paradise’ and the more familiar (perhaps) shifting moods of ‘Whats’ New in Baltimore?’ ‘Let’s Move to Cleveland’ has a playful, orchestral feel, some ‘drunken’ trumpet from Ronnie Buttacavoli and elegant organ solos from Ted Kooshian. Ed describes the reasoning for the departure from tradition in including a non Zappa composition for the concluding track in his humorous/ serious sleeve notes. Suffice to say it’s a rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ and features another well crafted organ solo from Ted Kooshian and Bruce McDaniel singing the lead vocal.
This is another great recording by Ed and his band and an essential for anyone remotely (or otherwise!) interested in the music of Frank Zappa. I needed to find out more so zipped off a few questions to Ed. Our conversation proved very revealing and illustrated the continuing and growing impact of Frank Zappa as a composer and musician.
AD: Like a lot of other people my introduction to your music was the Cuneiform release ‘Take Your Clothes Off When you Dance’. This really knocked me out and just to make sure I was overreacting I played it to a friend who is even more of a ‘Zappa head’ than I who also was fulsome in his praise. It must take a hell of a long time to ‘nail’ eight Zappa pieces- how did you do it?
Ed: Well this CD was different than the others because after playing Zappa's music for the past 15 years-some tunes more faithful to the originals than others, I had decided to radically change the structures of all the songs. There are 2 main reasons for this. One, even though it's a tribute to my favorite composer, at the end of the day, it's going to be the artistic expression of the arranger, not the original composer. I'm way too old to be satisfied with replicating something that Zappa already nailed to perfection the first time around. If it's not a new approach, why even bother? But the main thought process, as is almost EVERYTHING I do and have done since I started this Zappa project, is 100% geared towards the hardcore Zappaphiles. So for instance, when you listen to my version of "Echidna's Arf", you have to wait at least a minute before you hear a strongly recognizable theme of Zappa's. Prior to that, there are several very subtle quotes of Zappa's version, but you have to listen pretty hard. I do this because I truly want to surprise those Zappaphiles who know Frank's versions inside and out. My entire goal in this arrangement and the others on the CD is to make people wait for those big orgasmic parts that Frank wrote and hopefully will make the listener fly out of their chair. You can't do that by just replicating the original. But I think I digressed. Yes, it takes quite some time to write these charts. All of the charts I wrote for ‘Eddy Loves Frank’ were written in a period of approx 4 weeks, but you should know that we had been playing all of these tunes quite regularly in our New York performances for quite a few years. But those charts were much more faithful to Frank's originals. In fact, we STILL play those live. The arrangements on the new CD were all re-written. Fortunately, many of the difficult passages that are on both versions had been played by the band for a few years, so the players nailed it quickly in the studio.
AD: Let’s go back to the first time you saw Zappa play live. It was in 1969 I believe although I’m not sure where and you have been quoted as saying it ‘permanently altered my entire scope on music’. When there was so much great music around what attracted you to Zappa’s music in particular?
Ed: Prior to seeing him live for the first time in February '69 at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, I think I started falling in love with the songs from ‘We're Only In It For The Money’ and ‘Lumpy Gravy’, most notably ‘The Idiot Bastard Son’, ‘Oh No’, and ‘Mother People’. That orchestral segment that appears on both of those albums is to this day, one of the most beautifully written things I've ever heard. Hardcore ‘Zappaheads’ know what I'm talking about. I still get chills when I hear it. It appears in the middle of ‘Mother People’ from ‘We're Only In It For The Money’. But when I saw him live in Philly in '69, they started with ‘Uncle Meat’ with Frank playing Artie Tripp's drums while Artie played vibes. The album ‘Uncle Meat’ wasn't out yet, so I had never heard the song, but I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I had NEVER heard a melody like that! Still haven't really. It was the most original thing I'd ever heard. I really felt I was witnessing something greater than anything I'd ever heard in my life. I remember it like it was yesterday.
AD: Yeh, I think Zappa tended to have that effect on people- or some reason that ‘fuzzy dice and bongos’ line appears in my head at regular intervals and ‘Uncle Meat’ has always been my own favourite Zappa album. Turning to your own instrument of choice- who are your main influences as a sax player and what prompted you to have your own big band?
Ed: Cannonball Adderley, Phil Woods, Edgar Winter. Edgar started it all for me, then I got into the Phil and Cannon in college. The big band thing is very interesting. I HATED big bands in high school and wasn't crazy about them in college, though that's how I learned to read and play in a section. Most of the charts held no allure for me because I grew up a total rock and roller and couldn't relate to Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and Maynard Ferguson in particular. I thought that music was the epitome of corn, especially when they tried to play rock. The only jazz I liked were the occasional things that Edgar Winter would do (like his first album ‘Entrance’) and Zappa's jazzier things like ‘King Kong’ and ‘Toads of the Short Forest’. But as time went on in college, I grew to really appreciate arrangers like Thad Jones, Gil Evans, Bill Holman, and many others. I wasn't yet interested in arranging during college. I was totally focused on sax playing. After graduating, I moved to New York and heard Woody Shaw at the Vanguard with a 4 piece horn section. I thought, "That is so cool" and "I think I can do that". Prior to graduating from college, I had also heard an album that changed my entire outlook on big bands. It was called "IMPACT" by Charles Tolliver. To this day, I can't drive while listening to that song because I end up going 90 miles an hour. So the Woody Shaw experience at the Vanguard and the Tolliver album inspired me to put together a nine piece group. I had never arranged anything before. It was all trial and error. Eventually, a friend of mine had just joined Buddy Rich's band and said I should try writing some big band stuff in an attempt to sell them to Buddy. I did the charts, rehearsed them, edited the hell out of them and liked what I heard (though I had a LOT to learn). I never did get around to showing them to Buddy, but at that point, I caught the arranging bug. This was over 30 years ago and I'm STILL obsessed with writing.
AD: You have interpreted the music of many other artists besides Zappa. Are there any recordings available of these?
Ed: Unfortunately, no. I've arranged and performed the entire ‘Entrance’ album (Edgar Winter) and a ton of Paul Butterfield, and Mike Bloomfield's group, the Electric Flag. I'd love to record all of that.
AD: I’m talking to you on behalf of ‘Acid Dragon’ which is ostensibly a progressive rock magazine although I am always at pains to stress that ‘progressive’ as a musical term is inclusive and anything that takes music forward is certainly within our remit. Do you listen to any of the progressive artists yourself (Cuneiform has a few on their books) and do you make time to listen to music and if so what are your preferences?
Ed: I'm ashamed to admit I really don't listen to a lot of new music. I only listen to music in my car. When I'm home, I am always busy WRITING music. In my car, I usually listen to my old jazz, classical and rock CDs. I should get satellite radio.
AD: Maybe we could recommend something for you! (Do any of our readers have any suggestions?) Anyway, one final question. What are your future plans in terms of recording and touring. Is there any chance of a visit to Europe/ the UK?
Ed: Not much of a chance. It's really costly taking this band ANYWHERE. Even from state to state! There have been several occasions where we've been booked to play Germany and in Scandinavia, but usually it's just me bringing the charts over using great European musicians. That has always worked out great because the players are so good, but of course, I always prefer my American band. I would love to do a CD of my original music. In fact, I'm re-writing a bunch of my old stuff now, things I wrote in my 20's. That's what I hope to do. It'll be interesting to see if anyone would buy that.
AD: It’s a pity about the touring but at least we have the recordings and maybe some originals to come?
Thanks to Ed Palermo for taking the time to
answer our questions.