You CAN Do That on Stage Anymore!
By Brian Carr
Stephen Sondheim’s music was back on Broadway this summer. Hearing
Sondheim there is no
surprise, given his stature on the Great White Way. More unusually,
he was heard alongside
Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel, Jeff Beck, Procol
Harem, Todd Rundgren and
Spirit. Only two words can bring order to such a strange musical
stew: Frank Zappa. With
Frank, doo-wop, jazz, Synclavier, country or classical, you name it,
there was room in his pot.
But with Frank gone since 1993, only two words can explain how three
hours of live Zappa were
served up at NYC’s Iridium Jazz Club with sides of Sweeney Todd,
Rundgren Todd, etc. Ed
Palermo. June 3rd marked the release concert for his third CD, Eddy
Loves Frank. For 15 years
now, Palermo and his brilliant 16 piece big band have been cooking
their way through Zappa’s
giant songbook. This disk is easily Palermo’s finest recorded work.
On the new CD and even more so live, Echidna’s Arf (of You) is
probably the best example of
Palermo’s mastery. From section to section, the call and response
melody and serial riffs change
in style and speed: Glenn Miller sax section swing, Count Basie
punch, a dash of that 70's
Brecker-filled Saturday Night Live big band that played with Frank
on Live in NY, maybe a
splash of Tommy Dorsey. As always, Palermo bathes in Frank’s
beautiful melodies, all while
staying seamlessly true to the hyper, Return to Forever-like fusion
rendering of Arf from the
1974 Helsinki show, many a fan’s favorite set from You Can’t Do That
on Stage Anymore, many
a fan’s (and perhaps Zappa’s) favorite ensemble. Doing all of that
in one cut isn’t just a mean
As the new CD moves on to Regyptian Strut and Don’t You Ever Wash
That Thing, it feels in
part like a reversion to the power chord form of Palermo’s first CD.
That CD took classics like
King Kong, Peaches En Regalia and Sofa head on, interspersed with
delicate, chamber music
tunes like Twenty Small Cigars. The second CD, Take Your Clothes Off
When You Dance, felt
more nuanced, and with less obvious cuts such as Dwarf Nebula and
Sleep Dirt. Those
arrangements, dipping into salsa and other influences, were, well,
jazzier, but the production more
muted. Eddy Loves Frank captures the best of both efforts
What it can’t quite capture, though, is how this band’s concerts
make, well, mincemeat pies of
every other Zappa-related group I’ve seen. Dweezil’s officially
endorsed band Zappa Plays Zappa
seems to be steadily improving with every tour. Like the one-time
Band From Utopia and
Project/Object, they’ve all succeeded admirably in bringing Frank’s
music to people. They most
closely resemble, however, the 1984 band’s straight rock approach.
What separates Palermo is the scope of his ambition. He’s not
content to simply adhere to
concert Zappa traditions like segueing between songs or working in
ad-libs and audience shout-
outs. Nor is his point made by coaxing fine solos from the 16 men
and women who burn through
his amazing charts. Ed is shooting for the Big Note, for Conceptual
The two Iridium sets are a perfect example. Halfway through the
first, Echidna’s Arf gave way to
Sondheim’s My Friends. Sweeney singing of his love for his razor
blades, driven by revenge, is
just the sort of tortured romance that Frank preferred - from
Bamboozled by Love to Carolina
Hard Core Ecstasy. But why Sondheim? Well, Eddy loves Sondheim, too.
Midway through set two, a greasy Sinatra-like lounge singer
appeared, dressed like a bad
wedding band escapee, pot-bellied and Moe Howard-wigged, oozing the
Sinatra, Peggy Lee and
Simon and Garfunkel tunes in a beautiful visual and vocal parody.
The charts still sounded great.
Drink two of my second set minimum could not blunt how twisted a
left turn this was for
someone premiering his CD at Iridium, a respected jazz hotspot. And
then Zappa’s Yo Cats rang
out. And Palermo had done it again: Frank meets Frank, right here in
New York, New York!
The moment, as bizarre as it was inspired, shows Palermo is beyond
seeking recognition for his
own audacious talents for arranging, playing and conducting. Or
trying to make even a penny on
this. His writing warrants a residency at Jazz at Lincoln Center
under Wynton Marsalis, working
wonders for their orchestra. Instead, he’s here, seeking vindication
for Zappa’s entire universe.
Truly, Broadway the hard way.
And each show is fresh chance to do just that. In early September,
Palermo was on stage again,
this time with Napoleon Murphy Brock, superstar radiant, playing sax
and flute, dancing,
squealing (and sweating) like James Brown, handing out muffins
during Muffin Man. Together
they tore through Andy, Montana, Po-Jama People, Wash That Thing and
Napoleon's other core
Roxy/Helsinki-era songs. Napoleon's gyrations to Pygmy Twylyte
gyrations were so infectious
that my butt hurt from dancing along. Ah, dancing to Frank Zappa.
Even before tossing in a
James Brown cover, Palermo made me realize the ‘74 band’s real
secret: George, Napoleon and
Chester were Frank’s undercover funk soul machine.
For most anyone, including Frank, this combo of Napoleon's ‘74 set
list and a Grand Wazoo-sized
band with 15 years of practice would be a dream come true. For
Palermo, the Search for the Big
Note continued. He did it with his G-Spot Tornado mash-up,
rhythmically overlaying Ellington’s
Caravan and Santana’s Jingo. A Latin-tinged break in Florentine
Pogen. His patented King Kong
meets King Crimson 21st Century Schizoid Man jam. Peaches, its
ending re-arranged yet again -
all those notes, all those fingers - because Frank never stopped
re-working his own Big Puzzle
Such shows leave one begging for a live CD filled with sweaty
imperfections, and dreaming of a
visit from Ruth Underwood or Ed Mann, despite how well Ed’s keyboard
percussion parts. But what really stays, long after every Palermo
show or listen, are the musical
references that litter every arrangement, nagging at you
wonderfully: Wasn’t that a dash of the
Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” in Dupree’s Paradise? King Kong in Let’s
Move to Cleveland?
The Inca Roads double beat in Idiot Bastard Son? A snatch of Easy
Meat in Arf? And Napoleon
be damned, just to be weird, he brought out that greasy fake Sinatra
guy again. Well, WWFD?
Whatever it is Frank would do, that’s what Palermo does while still
being himself. He has the
musical intellect to back up his love for and grasp of Zappa’s
personal art, which was to
understand, honor and celebrate whatever music he heard, wrote,
hijacked or even mocked. To
hear anything equally new and Frank, you need to time travel back
forty years with the recently
released original Lumpy Gravy found on Lumpy Money. Get it.
But if you like it fresh, you’ll want every thing Palermo serves up.
He’s mastered the Art of
Frank Cooking. And with that band, you CAN do that on stage anymore!