An interview with
Ed Palermo

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 dividends, right?

Alto saxophone 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 so on.

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 and Prokofief.

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 chord sequence!

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 more swinging.

Those recordings are available directly through me. If anyone wants to buy one or more, just email me directly at

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 to stardom?

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 | July 12, 2006