April 15, 2008

Zappafied

Ed Palermo released The Ed Palermo Big Band Plays the Music of Frank Zappa a little more than ten years ago, and when the disc went out of print it soon became a collector’s item. Copies go on eBay and Amazon for as much as $100. I was a little surprised, then, to discover that Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance, Palermo’s second collection of Zappa tunes arranged for his band, was released with relatively little fanfare in May 2006. As they did on the first disc, Palermo and his 16-piece band play Zappa’s tunes with skill, respect, and a passion for the composer’s work.

Palermo grew up in Ocean City, New Jersey, and first caught Zappa live in 1969. "It was Zappa that totally blew me away," he told me in an e-mail. "I was seeing a lot of bands at that time (a lot of GREAT ones like Procol Harum), but the one that stood out as the most original and exciting was the Mothers of Invention." Palermo was in the ninth grade when he saw that show, and was "diddling away on sax and guitar. After Zappa, I wanted to be a composer and arranger."

Palermo studied music at De Paul University in Chicago, where he developed an admiration for Steve Grossman, Dave Liebman, and Michael Brecker, all very influential tenor-sax players at the time. "I loved Mike because he was a rock and roller at heart, as was I." Palermo switched from alto to tenor because of the impact those musicians had on him, but after graduating from De Paul and moving to New York, "I became tired of being a fourth-rate Brecker clone and switched back to alto, the main influence at that point in my life being Cannonball Adderley. I was also starting to take my writing seriously during this time as well."

Around the time Palermo returned to New York, in the 1980s, he caught Woody Shaw’s nonet at the Village Vanguard, which "led me to believe that I could possibly arrange music like that. I put together my own nine-piece group and started the trial-and-error process of arranging for small and large ensembles." Palermo’s band released two discs of his own compositions in the ’80s, Ed Palermo, also released as Papier Mache, and Ping Pong. It was after Zappa’s death, in 1993, that Palermo began interpreting a large body of the composer’s work. "I had arranged several of his pieces. When he died, I decided to write an entire show of his music. We debuted at a NYC club called the Bitter End, and moved to a bigger club called the Bottom Line, where we played every two months for nine years, adding material every show."

The Ed Palermo Big Band Plays the Music of Frank Zappa is a well-chosen collection of arrangements of the composer’s work, some of them obscure enough to be known best only by hardcore Zappaphiles; e.g., "Who Are the Brain Police?" (from Freak Out!) and "Toads of the Short Forest" (from Weasels Ripped My Flesh). Palermo doesn’t limit himself to interpreting Zappa’s instrumental work. In addition to "Who Are the Brain Police?," he covered "We Are Not Alone" on this album, and his website includes links to live performances of "Inca Roads" and "Montana," among others. The latter two feature vocals by Zappa alumnus Napoleon Murphy Brock, but Palermo more often recasts Zappa’s tunes without vocals.

Palermo was able to lure some impressive talents to guest on Plays the Music of Frank Zappa, including Bob Mintzer, Chris Potter, and guitarist Mike Keneally, who played on some of Zappa’s later recordings. But as much as Palermo admires Zappa’s music, he wasn’t reverential -- he didn’t just copy what Zappa himself had played. The tunes remain familiar, but Palermo found new things in them, and gave the members of his band plenty of room to improvise. "Peaches en Regalia," one of Zappa’s best-known compositions, is more relaxed and swings harder than it did in its original version on Hot Rats, and the sections of the orchestra give the song greater textural dimensions.

Palermo continues his smart approach to Zappa on Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance. From the disc’s first note, it’s immediately apparent that this is an extremely cohesive, well-rehearsed ensemble. "Rdnzl," which opens the disc, originally appeared on Studio Tan (1978) and, later, Lšther (1996). Palermo’s version seems based on a 1972 arrangement by Zappa that first appeared on the posthumous collection The Lost Episodes (1996). Zappa’s earlier version was an improvisational jazz piece, the arranged sections bracketing featured soloists. Palermo adapts many of Zappa’s ideas, using the sections of the orchestra to expand and built on some the composer’s effects, along the way ensuring that the soloists in his band have space to explore each work’s harmonic and rhythmic possibilities.

Zappa recorded three versions of "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance." The song first appeared on We’re Only In It for the Money as a Broadway show-tune parody, then on Lumpy Gravy as a surf instrumental. Palermo’s arrangement probably takes its cue from a 1962 recording of the song, which Zappa arranged for a small jazz combo (another track from The Lost Episodes). Palermo takes things a step further and gives the song the feel of Latin jazz. Joe Fiedler’s trombone solo is melodic, swinging, and deeply felt, and tenor player Ben Kono stretches out in an edgy solo with firm support from the rest of the band.

Palermo’s musicians are well traveled and have played in a variety of musical settings. Nearly all of them have appeared with established jazz musicians, and some have made the rent by playing in Broadway orchestras or for television. Performing Zappa’s music as arranged by Palermo provides a challenge, as well as the chance to stretch out and show off their chops. Alto player Cliff Lyons takes full advantage of his feature on "Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula" (which originally appeared in 1969, on Weasels Ripped My Flesh), and Palermo himself brings passion and intelligence to his three features on the disc. Other impressive soloists include tenor saxophonists Bill Straub and Dave Reikenberg, trombonist Charles Gordon, and organist Ted Kooshian.

Palermo wisely avoids attempting to replicate the effects Zappa created in the studio. Like many other musicians of his generation, Zappa explored and exploited the possibilities of recording, using sound effects, tape splicing, and other techniques to throw his compositions into new sonic directions that often seemed to subvert his musical intentions. That sense of strangeness and anarchy is missing from Palermo’s interpretations of Zappa’s work, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Zappa’s own recording of "Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula" begins with a minute of complex, beautiful melody that segues abruptly into a minute or so of backward-tape manipulation. However avant-garde such an experiment might have been in 1969, one tape manipulation tends to sound like another.

Palermo uses as his foundation the melody from "Dwarf Nebula" and with the outlines of Zappa’s original arrangement, then expands on ideas suggested in the song, opening it up with his own, Zappa-inspired ideas. The band takes off on the arrangement -- especially, as noted earlier, Cliff Lyons. Palermo’s version doesn’t replace Zappa’s, which is firmly embedded in the minds of the composer’s fans (Weasels was the first Zappa LP I ever bought). It does, however, suggest that themes that Zappa presented even briefly can be revitalized and used for exciting musical exploration.

"Every tune has its own stimulus for me," Palermo says. "Some songs, like ‘Little House I Used to Live In,’ for example, I wanted to make bigger. There’s a point in that tune, right after the melody is first introduced, that Frank added a pipe organ. I figured, ‘Shit, let’s make this even bigger!’ So I added brass on those chords on top of the saxes, who play the melody. I don’t think the amount of popularity of a song plays any role in how I decide to interpret a piece. I pretty much focus on the lesser-known songs, anyway. They’re the ones that excite me the most and make me feel I’m providing a service to the hardcore Zappa freaks who REALLY want to hear these tunes."

Palermo doesn’t limit himself to interpreting Zappa. As noted earlier, his first two discs were made up of his own work. His band also plays Edgar Winter’s first LP, Entrance (1970), in its entirety. "[That LP] was played in my house day and night. It really was the first jazz I ever fell in love with. Edgar’s alto sax playing on that album is unreal, and remains to this day up there with my favorite solos." Palermo and his band also play the music of Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield -- including Bob Dylan’s "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," which Bloomfield played on.

To me, it’s a bit of a scandal that all of Ed Palermo’s music isn’t in print. Should Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance sell briskly, as it deserves to, then perhaps his other music will again be available on disc. Jazz fans should listen to Palermo to hear how formidable Zappa was as a composer, and how well his ideas can be used as a foundation for improvisation. "Not many producers and promoters in the jazz world take Zappa seriously as a musician, let alone a JAZZ musician," Palermo notes. "Their loss."

…Joseph Taylor
josepht@soundstageav.com

 


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