By Beppe Colli
July 12, 2006
As I've already written in my review,
Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance - the recently released
CD where The Ed Palermo Big Band brilliantly performs their leader's
appropriate arrangements of several Frank Zappa compositions - was for
me a very nice surprise. It's obvious that such a rich work needs a
lot of preparation. It's also obvious that doing a search on the Net
will give one some information. But a first-hand approach will pay higher
player, arranger and leader, Ed Palermo kindly accepted to answer my
questions. The interview was conducted via e-mail between the end of
June and the start of July.
As a first topic for our interview,
I'd really like you to talk about your childhood, your adolescence,
your early formative influences in music, your likes and dislikes, and
I grew up in southern New Jersey in
a town called Ocean City. Nice beach town but not very sophisticated
artistically. My brothers and I had to go to Philadelphia to see the
bands that we loved. Not even Atlantic City featured bands we liked,
which included Procol Harum, Todd Rundgren, and of course Zappa.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. My first emotional
musical experience that I can recall is the theme from the old TV show
Perry Mason. Every week it came on, that music almost made me cry. It
was so powerful yet tragic at the same time. (Later, as a professional
arranger, I arranged this piece for my own big band.)
This was around 1959-1960. I was born in 1954.
In 1964, the Beatles came out, and changed my life forever. I knew then
that music was going to be IT for me. Several years later, my oldest
brother Nick brought home an album called Freak Out! by the Mothers
of Invention. I liked it, didn't love it. Next was Absolutely Free and
I mainly found it funny more than great music.
Keep in mind I'm only 12 years old at the time.
Zappa's next album, We're Only In It For The Money really grew on me
and I found myself falling in love with songs like The Idiot Bastard
Son and Mother People. The music would go through my head all day long
during my ninth grade classes. This of course, inspired me to go back
and listen to Zappa's first 2 albums with new ears.
The monumental event that was to change my life forever occurred when
I saw the Mothers perform live for the first time. It was amazing!!
They opened with Uncle Meat (the album of the same name wasn't to be
released until the next month). I had never heard music that sounded
like that. I was 14 years old. I am 52 now, and I still remember this
concert as if it were yesterday. It was that powerful.
Zappa's influence inspired me to check out classical and jazz artists
because his own music was so eclectic. I played sax in high school and
always assumed that was going to be the instrument I was to pursue.
While in high school, I also fell in love with the music of Edgar Winter,
especially an album called Entrance. (Later, again as a professional
arranger, I arranged this entire album for my big band.) Edgar played
alto sax in a much jazzier and swinging way than the guys in the Mothers
(though I loved their playing, too) and this appealed to my ear very
much. This inspired me to check out and emulate Cannonball Adderly,
Phil Woods, and of course, Charlie Parker.
When I went to college in Chicago, I practiced day and night to sound
like those guys. After college, I moved to New York to become a jazz
tenor sax player (midway through college, I switched from alto to tenor
sax due to the huge influence of John Coltrane, Mike Brecker and Dave
Leibman). I became interested in arranging though I had never done it
before. My friend Dave LaLama is a great arranger, so he helped me a
lot and answered a lot of questions. I think the main impetus for my
desire to arrange was an album by Charles Tolliver called Impact. Unbelievable
music! Also, I saw an octet Woody Shaw put together at the Village Vanguard.
It was this show that made me realize that I could possibly have the
ability to write like that.
I spent the next 15 years writing for a big band I formed. Recorded
2 albums of mainly original material, influenced by eclectic sources,
not the least of which, classical music, particularly the works of Shostakovitch
When Zappa died in 1993, I decided to devote my time paying tribute
to the composer who started me off in the first place. We played for
9 years in a New York nightclub called the Bottom Line, during which
time we recorded our first CD of Zappa material called The Ed Palermo
Big Band Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa (also known as Big Band Zappa).
After a break of a year or so, we started it up again in another NY
club called Iridium. During this time we recorded our second CD of Zappa
material Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance.
Listening to the first of the two
CDs you've released featuring your arrangements of music written by
Frank Zappa, I noticed that the ending of We Are Not Alone reminded
me a lot of Aren't You Glad, the song by US group Spirit that closes
their second album from 1969, The Family That Plays Together. Not a
coincidence, obviously. Maybe a kind of homage to this group - and to
their arranger at the time, Marty Paich? Please, talk about it.
Spirit was one of my favorite groups back in the 60's. Aren't You Glad
being one of my all time favorite songs to this day. Right when you
think the song is over, you hear a distant tambourine set a groove,
one of the guys in Spirit counts off 4 beats and what follows is pure
heaven. On top of a simple but sinister chord progression lies a powerful
yet simple brass part, and on top of all THAT is probably the most spiritually
burning guitar solo ever recorded. Randy California, I MISS YOU!! The
solo ends WAY too briefly, but not before Randy gets in lines that make
me jump out of my seat EVERY TIME!
My inclusion of this part at the end of We Are Not Alone is less an
homage than an attempt to capture a fraction of that spirit. Mike Keneally,
Mike Stern and I trade guitar solos. (THE BALLS OF ME TO DARE PLAY ALONG
SIDE THESE 2 GUITAR GENIUSES! BALLS OF STEEL!) It's one of my favorite
parts on my CD. I absolutely love it.
At the end of the 60s, having an
orchestra play on a record was nothing strange. The Beatles, obviously.
Burt Bacharach, of course. The "mellow sound" of US groups
like The Mamas And The Papas and The Fifth Dimension. Nick Drake (though
he was practically unknown at the time). Charlie Calello's arrangements
for Laura Nyro. But also in a "rock" context: Spirit, of course.
Love. Even The Doors used strings and brass at one point, though results
were definitely controversial. There were brass players in groups like
Blood, Sweat And Tears. It definitely made for a quite varied musical
landscape on one's radio, and exposed listeners to many different styles.
You were there. Is this too rosy a picture?
Not at all. I loved horns in certain contexts and hated horns in others.
I almost always loved strings and orchestral winds and percussion no
matter what the context. I even love that corny arrangement to Long
And Winding Road. That arrangement is REALLY dated for that time, but
you have to admit, it enhances the drama of the song. It's kind of like
when I write a saxophone soli (that's that corny big band sound when
the saxes play tight melodic passages in 4 or 5 part harmony). A lot
of times, especially when I do it with Zappa's music, it's meant as
a joke. You know, throwing a retro concept into a modern framework.
Whether I do it as a joke or not, I also do it because I love how it
sounds. So, it fits 2 purposes for me.
Man, you could go back to Hang On Sloopy and hear a couple horns on
that! They've been beefing up pop music for years with brass. And how
about The Four Seasons' Can't Take My Eyes Off You, probably one of
the most memorable horn lines ever written.
Chicago was one of my favorite bands back then, but eventually, the
way they used brass started to annoy me. It reminded me of those awful
Maynard Ferguson copy bands like Chase. Way too corny. Zappa used brass
much much hipper and original. Truth be told, though, in recent years
I've come to REALLY appreciate the brilliant arrangements of Chicago.
It took me awhile, but I did a complete 360. I guess musical tastes
can be fickle.
I think the reason why I started disliking Chicago at that point was
because it just seemed to sound like old men trying to be hip. Like
when Woody Herman started doing Chicago tunes like 25 or 6 to 4 or when
Stan Kenton played Hey Jude. YUCK!
In the 70s, Elton John made the
orchestra "hip" again, with those arrangements by Paul Buckmaster
and, later, by Del Newman. A few years ago I was surprised to see that
Buckmaster was still active, and the winner of a Grammy for his arrangement
of Train's Drops Of Jupiter. But nowadays one doesn't hear many real
- as opposed to sampled - string and brass parts. True?
It's funny you mentioned Paul Buckmaster and Elton John. The arrangements
on that first LP are amazing! I've been meaning to go back and analyze
them, but I never have time.
To answer your question, it is definitely true that we're hearing more
samples strings now. This becomes REALLY evident when you hear string
players bitch and moan about the good old days. Horn players, too, but
at least horn players have a better perspective on the matter. Sure,
real instruments are WAY preferable to sampled stuff, but horn samples
FUCKING SUCK! I remember quite a few years ago, Steve Winwood breaking
my heart by having a sampled sax solo on one of his songs. This is the
genius who wrote John Barleycorn, Glad, No Time To Live, and a zillion
other classics, and he's using a miserable sampled sax sound??? Sign
of the fucking times!
You mentioned Phil Woods. Of course,
he performed the alto saxophone solo on Steely Dan's Doctor Wu, on Kathy
Lied. In the 70s, Steely Dan were considered as "influential innovators".
What's your opinion of them?
Amazing musicians. Those 2 guys balance each other perfectly. I find
that many Zappa fans are also Steely Dan fans as well. This is because
their music is soulful and interesting. I love early SD, particularly.
Especially Fagen's harmonies on the song, Pretzel Logic. I love that
In fact, I sometimes slip the chorus of I.G.Y. into my Zappa show
and the audience always loves it.
Once upon a time, one arrived at
an instrumental balance, then everything went straight to tape. After
so many years of multitracking (not to mention sampling!), how easy
it is to find an engineer who understands concepts like "mike placement"
and "acoustic balance"?
Super easy! They're all over the place. Great ones. And they're all
looking for work.
Judging from the material you've
chosen to include on your two CDs of arrangements of Zappa compositions,
I'd say you definitely prefer material from a certain period. Is it
true? If so, what, in your opinion, makes this material differ from
stuff of a later vintage?
First, it is true that the bulk of my Zappa
repertoire focuses on the early days. This includes the many songs I've
arranged that aren't recorded. So, the answer is yes, that was my favorite
period of Frank's music. And I definitely can't chalk that up to nostalgia.
The music is just so beautiful from that period - Uncle Meat, Burnt
Weenie, Hot Rats, etc.
The original impetus for my tribute to Zappa
was solely inspired by his early period, but as the shows at the Bottom
Line continued, the initiative to arrange more FZ material was pretty
intense. So I went back and listened to every stage of his career!
Most people I talk to think that Zappa's best
band was the '70's lineup with George Duke, Napoleon, Jean Luc, Ruth
Underwood, etc. I agree with that assessment for the most part, though
all of his bands were outstanding. In my opinion, the early bands (1966-1969)
with Bunk, Don, Ian, Jimmy, Roy, etc., were more "organic"
and therefore had a more unique sound. I believe there is a special
quality that comes about when a band works and rehearses together a
lot and learn the material more by rote than reading off charts. I'm
sure all of Frank's bands did the rote thing to an extent, but I think,
perhaps erroneously, that the early bands did that more. It's a harder
way to learn material, but it pays off in the end.
And this comes from a guy (me) who has his band
ONLY read charts. I don't have patience for the rote thing.
To answer your question on how Frank's music
differs through the years, I'd say that his musical desires would change
from one stage to the next. The original Mothers' music became increasingly
more complex as his desire to hear the music with bigger bands. By the
time I saw him in '69, he had 3 horns - Ian, Bunk and Bunk's brother
Buzz. And Motorhead on some songs. This allowed him to experiment with
his more advanced compositions, but also gave him a nifty horn section
for those '50's tunes he loved so much.
Eventually, he toured with a REALLY bigger band,
The Grand Wazoo, and later the Petit Wazoo, neither of which I saw live,
unfortunately. People have given me some tapes of those shows, though.
Very interesting stuff. Ironically, my favorite Zappa is not the Grand
Wazoo material, though I love most of it. And my band plays ALL of it.
In the 60s Zappa was a musical
innovator, but also a prominent member of the "counterculture".
In your opinion, were "baby boomers" more receptive to (let's
call them) experiments in music, and social commentary and stuff, than
their modern counterpart? I mean, an artist like Zappa wouldn't even
get signed nowadays, right?
Probably not, but keep in mind, Frank would
be a slightly different person if he was starting out today. He'd be
the same genius, but everyone is a product of the times they live in,
so maybe a young Frank Zappa in 2006 would figure out a way to make
his music relevant to the times and therefore sellable to at least a
cult following. Keep in mind, in the '60's, he was always trying to
figure out how to sell his stuff to a wider audience. Even before the
formation of the Mothers, he was producing surf music, doo-wop, novelty
songs, and all sorts of stuff.
But if you mean a 60 year old Zappa couldn't
get signed nowadays, you're DEFINITELY correct.
To answer your first question, the '60's were
an unbelievably creative time for music. I agree with Zappa's assessment
(that I've read in interviews - I've never met Frank) that the labels
back then were less artistically astute than they were clueless to what
sold and what didn't. It was so new, that they would throw anything
out there to see if it caught on.
But AUDIENCES were more astute, in my opinion,
and less impatient with artists who didn't just play the songs the audience
was familiar with. I also agree with Zappa that A+R people from the
labels have ruined everything by taking away the creative spirit and
rewarding copycat bands and artists.
Many people scoff at the '60's because some
of the trends were stupid and embarrassing, but it was also a MUCH more
boldly creative time than what was to follow.
Earlier in this conversation, you
referred to two albums of mainly original material that you recorded
and released: Would you mind talking a bit more about those? (By the
way, are those albums - and your first Zappa CD - still available?)
I recorded my first big band LP in 1982. The
band had been playing for a couple years at a NY nightclub owned in
part by Mike and Randy Brecker called Seventh Avenue South. My father
lent me the money, though ordinarily he invests his money wisely. We
played there 3 years until the club replaced us with Gil Evans. Now,
THAT was a wise investment.
That LP, simply called Ed Palermo was my first
production. I was 28 years old. I now sell it as a CD and call it Papier
Mache named after the first song on the album. The album features Randy
Brecker, David Sanborn, and my favorite, Edgar Winter, who takes an
organ/scat solo on the title track that gives me chills to this day.
He also takes a great sax solo on the same track.
It's all original material except for a couple
things I cowrote with people.
Releasing an album on your own "label"
is exhausting and I vowed never to do it again. So, it took five years
before a record company showed an interest in releasing my next project,
Ping Pong named after the Wayne Shorter tune. This was on a lame label
called Pro-Arte. The liner notes had misspellings and bad grammar. The
music was good though. Much different than the first. Less complex and
Those recordings are available directly through
me. If anyone wants to buy one or more, just email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And I still have a few of my first Zappa CD's
left, so the same deal applies.
You've obviously played a lot of
concerts performing your arrangements of Zappa material. Would you mind
talking about some particular moments/experiences? (I'd also like to
know about your concerts with Mike Keneally - in a recent interview
I did with him he talked about some peculiar moments...)
Yeah, we played a lot of shows! The
guests have been varied: Ike Willis, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Mike Keneally,
David Tronzo, the great slide guitarist, ex-Captain Beefheart guitarist
Gary Lucas, and more.
It was always a beautiful experience. Sometimes,
I throw in non-Zappa tunes, so it was a blast to hear Keneally solo
on my arrangement of Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Bitch's Crystal and
Ike Willis singing Jimi Hendrix's Rainy Day and If 6 Was 9. And Keneally
playing Jeff Beck's Diamond Dust!
I still get emails from people who witnessed
the Keneally shows. Mike brings an energy to the table that is amazing.
It's not only that he's such an amazing musician, it's that he loves
it so much. Gil Evans once told me that the truly great players have
that love and passion for playing.
With Keneally, I could just tell him quickly
before the set what we were gonna do, a little about his role in it,
and we'd take it from there. I only enjoy performing live if it has
that organic quality. The band is always well-rehearsed, of course,
but I throw a lot of monkey wrenches in there to keep it fresh. (Note
to Italians: I hope I'm not using too many American phrases, like "monkey
wrench".) (Note to Ed: Don't worry, Ed, here at Clouds and Clocks
we only use the best translators.)
I know Mike wasn't happy with his performance
on my first Zappa CD, but believe me, he played incredible on there.
He's very self-critical. Most geniuses are.
Your new CD is out, reviews are
in... Any plans about tours? Any other types of work while on the road
Not really. It's still extremely difficult finding
promoters to pay for moving around a band this size. We have a gig in
Detroit (jazz festival) Monday, Sept. 4 and a couple hits in August
in NY and Jersey, but that's it for the time being.
© Beppe Colli 2006
CloudsandClocks.net | July 12, 2006