Jazz CD Reviews

The Ed Palermo Big Band – Eddy Loves Frank – Cuneiform Rune

Palermo has led a progressive big band for three decades and has performed Zappa's work for half that time, bringing Zappa's notoriously difficult material to enthusiastic crowds.

Published on December 10, 2009

The Ed Palermo Big Band – Eddy Loves Frank – Cuneiform Rune

The Ed Palermo Big Band – Eddy Loves Frank – Cuneiform Rune 285, 53:25 ****:

(Ed Palermo – alto saxophone; Cliff Lyons – alto saxophone, clarinet; Bill Straub – tenor saxophone, clarinet; Charles Gordon, Joe Fiedler – trombone; Phil Chester – soprano & alto saxophone, flute, piccolo; Ben Kono – tenor saxophone, flute, oboe; Ray Marchica – drums; Ted Kooshian – Kurzweil organ; Bruce McDaniel – guitar, vocals (on track 8), producer; Bob Quaranta – piano; Ronnie Buttacavoli, John Hines, Steve Jankowski, Steven Jankowski – trumpet; Paul Adamy – electric & fretless bass; Barbara Cifelli – baritone saxophone, E-flat mutant clarinet, bass clarinet; Matt Ingman – bass trombone; special guests: John Palermo – mandolin (tracks 2, 3, 6), guitar & mandolin (track 8); Veronica Martell – vocals (track 8), Rob Paparozzi – bass harmonica (track 7)

Frank Zappa was an iconoclast who tore down musical barriers and created a vast musical catalog that could be highbrow or lowbrow, sometimes in the same song. In the years since Zappa’s untimely death in 1993, his material has become a touchstone for several generations and his stature continues to gain momentum. Saxophonist/arranger and acknowledged fan Ed Palermo is helping to keep Zappa’s concepts and compositions alive by producing jazz interpretations of Zappa music and in the process has introduced jazz listeners to Zappa and/or leading Zappa aficionados to jazz music. For those not familiar with Palermo, he has led a progressive big band for three decades and has performed Zappa’s work for half that time, bringing Zappa’s notoriously difficult material to enthusiastic crowds.

Eddy Loves Frank is Palermo’s third Zappa tribute and his best collection so far. The 50-plus minute excursion features seven colorfully rendered Zappa tunes plus a reverent take of "America the Beautiful." Palermo admits his main audience is mostly hardcore Zappaphiles, although Palermo’s bold, swinging reinvention of Zappa’s music is enjoyable and fun on its own terms. What really makes this project successful is that Palermo’s arrangements – which are readymade for ornate orchestration but also have room for soloing – are heavy on jazz harmony while retaining Zappa’s original built-in characteristics and humorous impulses.

Palermo utilizes a large and talented crew to convey his vision of Zappa. While there are Zappa works that lend themselves to jazz arrangements (Hot Rats and Broadway the Hard Way come to mind), Palermo makes use of challenging Zappa songs that were not incipiently construed in a jazz vein. In most instances, Palermo peels the numbers apart in unique ways and coats them with his own orchestral enhancements, sustaining Zappa’s melodic and harmonic designs but giving them a different texture. An example is opener "Night School," from the Synclavier-dominated, Grammy-winning 1986 Zappa outing Jazz from Hell. Palermo intertwines the brass players into a unified entity that discloses the composition’s elegance and emotional heart. Palermo contributes an effective alto sax solo that complements the melody, and there is a tricky part near the end where the brass section curls in an engaging concave that highlights the piece’s complexity.  

Palermo’s arranging skills come to the fore on the second track, an outstanding rendition of Echidna’s Arf (Of You). The 9:49 piece is the album’s longest and is nearly twice as lengthy as Zappa’s 1974 version. Palermo orchestrates profuse lines that extend the tune while staying true to Zappa’s intent. Intersecting horns open the song and then alto saxophonist Cliff Lyons springs outward to shoot off bustling taut lines. Meanwhile, the rhythm section continually shifts tempo. A torrent of gyrating notes rush by at high speed to exhibit the ensemble’s intuitive communication but the fast clip never contorts Palermo’s snappish and swinging spree.
Drummer Ray Marchica and bassist Paul Adamy place more emphasis on swing during "Regyptian Strut," from Zappa’s 1979 opus Sleep Dirt. This is another illustration of how Palermo does not conform to the way Zappa performed his music. Palermo restructures the arrangement to include boisterous taunting while providing a logical space for solos from Phil Chester (soprano sax) and trombonist Joe Fiedler. Palermo and his big band execute "Regyptian Strut" so well the new treatment seems customary even when it is not.

Zappa was an accomplished but uncelebrated guitarist and one of his six-string showcases was the hygienically prosaic and emphatic "Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?" Guitarist Bruce McDaniel takes Zappa’s place on the fretboard. However, the cut initially accentuates horns and the tight drums and bass section with brassy blasts and several rhythmic changes. Organist Ted Kooshian then impresses with a spiraling and soulful solo, followed by another notable Palermo sax sojourn. It’s only at the 4:20 mark that McDaniel steps forward, employing a cleaner and more static style than Zappa typically used and also managing to offer a flush of enticement similar to what Zappa engendered. Palermo and the group soar toward a climatic zenith, but with assured self-confidence turn the tune around and instead end with a Carl Stallingesque cartoon TKO.

Zappa often made light of U.S. cities and their peculiarities, and in that mode, the assemblage tackles two municipality-oriented tracks. "What’s New in Baltimore" features a luring Bob Quaranta piano solo and a vigorous Ben Kono tenor presentation. On this segment as elsewhere the big band moves as a single concentrated unit. "Let’s Move To Cleveland" is refashioned to emphasize the melodically-spindled theme that has a jaunty modern verve. The piece proceeds with a sense of whimsical euphoria. The musicians change pace or turn from a slightly imbalanced swell to a frenzied passage like a well-oiled machine. Ted Kooshian accelerates the sped-up pile-up with his punchy organ during a solo portion where wah-wah trumpet and arching flutes also add to the disjointed spectacle. Listening to this big band resolutely advance with such animated instincts and transition at a second’s notice is both enormously entertaining and remarkable.

Palermo modulates his stride with a conscientious edition of "America the Beautiful," which Palermo says in his liner notes is a tribute to his father, a World War II veteran. McDaniel sings the patriotic lyrics with sincerity while the ensemble plays the famous anthem with a straightforward sentiment. Zappa fanatics might scratch their heads in befuddlement at such an earnest ending but it’s an apt conclusion for an album that is a commemoration to a musical father figure. Eddy Loves Frank is an adroit big band jazz delight, but it is also a commendable introduction to an artist whose work was wide-ranging and genre-free.

While Palermo’s arrangements let the music breathe, much credit must also go to engineer Steve Jankowski and Bruce McDaniel, who produced, mixed and also helped engineer the record. The studio production is reverberant  and clean. Each soloist is marked out distinctly in the mix and the group sound is always warm and full, never blurred or mired.

TrackList:

1. Night School
2. Echidna’s Arf (of You)
3. Regyptian Strut
4. Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?
5. Dupree’s Paradise
6. What’s New in Baltimore
7. Let’s Move to Cleveland
8. America the Beautiful

– Doug Simpson




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