Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Un-American: The Ed Palermo Big Band

The Ed Palermo Big Band, with Ed Palermo (centre). (Photo: Chris Dukker)

Over the last 25 years or so, pop songs have entered the jazz world with abundance as a younger generation of musicians seeks out new music to arrange and perform. Though the so-called American Songbook, featuring standards that have stood the proverbial test of time, is still played with gusto at the educational level, the age of the music has shifted from the thirties and forties to the eighties and nineties. While original compositions abound for the current generation of arrangers, the challenges of rethinking a standard like Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” don’t necessarily have the appeal of, say, those of rethinking “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears For Fears. Generally speaking pop songs offer a creative chance for a new arrangement or a way of pushing the music beyond the three chords of the original. One of the best at stretching the limits of pop is Ed Palermo. His current release on Cuneiform Records, called The Great Un-American Songbook, Volume 1 & 2, is an ambitious 2-CD set of 21 pop songs arranged for his big band. The musical results are lively, passionate and just outside enough to engage the most experienced listener.

Ed Palermo started playing saxophone in high school swayed by the music of The Beatles and The Mothers of Invention combined with Sousa marches. Palermo's enthusiasm for rock music was equal to his interest in jazz so he set about merging one form into the  other. His claim to fame is his excellent arrangements of the music of Frank Zappa for his own band. He and his first-rate group of musicians never just pay lip service to Zappa’s often-complicated tunes – they revel in them. The players swing hard and offer listeners a chance to really appreciate Zappa’s music in a new way by embellishing the harmonies and improvising as freely as possible. First formed in 1977, the Ed Palermo Big Band has released only five albums and their new record takes its music further afield, to England to be precise, and the pop music of the sixties and seventies from some of the biggest names in British rock. The album features familiar songs from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Cream, but the real surprises are selections made famous by prog-rock enthusiasts King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Jethro Tull. The deep cuts arranged for jazz band include songs from The Move, Procol Harum and Blodwyn Pig that all seem to fit Palermo’s niche as an arranger. At first glance you wouldn’t think that rock songs from these sophisticated groups could be re-interpreted for jazz band without sounding stiff. But Palermo has honed his craft as an arranger who knows how to write for his group of talented players. On this new album they respond accordingly with powerful solos and eloquent harmonies, recorded between April and October 2016. The timeline seems long for a jazz record, which would usually be done in a couple days, but Palermo’s financial resources are low; as he says, “It’s a money losing proposition.”

While most everything succeeds on this big record, not everything sparkles the same way, but that’s the risk Palermo is willing to take on a 21-track release. That said, I was really impressed with his version of “We Love You” by The Rolling Stones, which segues into “Eleanor Rigby” by Lennon and McCartney. Of equal interest on disc one are the two King Crimson tracks, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (part two),” featuring a great solo from Katie Jacoby on violin, and “21st Century Schizoid Man,” featuring a serviceable vocal by Bruce McDaniel and a killer alto sax solo from Palermo.

Highlights on disc two include the Nice/Green Day mashup, “America-American Idiot,” and “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” originally recorded by Traffic. Frank Zappa’s “Chunga’s Revenge” peppers the Steve Winwood composition and it works beautifully as an arrangement. Katie Jacoby gets another fine solo on the “Don’t Bother Me/Nardis” track, fusing the George Harrison song with one of Miles Davis’s best-known ballads. “Fire,” the one-hit wonder from Arthur Brown, gets a straight-up performance featuring long-time Zappa alumnus Napoleon Murphy Brock.

But I think the strongest cut is “Diamond Dust,” originally recorded by Jeff Beck on his 1975 release, Blow by Blow. The band featuring Bob Quaranta on piano nicely renders this instrumental ballad in 5/4 time. I wish there were more tracks with the same feel but, according to Palermo, there are more pop songs to arrange and explore down the road in what will become a regular series as time and money permit.

For more on the group’s history, their music and touring schedule, visit

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.

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