CD REVIEW: The Ed Palermo Big Band – The Adventures of Zodd Zundgren

The Ed Palermo Big Band – The Adventures of Zodd Zundgren 
(Cuneiform Records, Rune 440. CD Review by Jane Mann)

Somehow, the work of the brilliant New York-based American arranger, saxophonist and guitarist Ed Palermo had passed me by until now. His previous CDs include: The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2 (2017) which celebrates British pop music, Oh No! Not Jazz!! (2009), and at least two other Frank Zappa tribute albums. He’s been an arranger or alto sax player for big names including Mel Tormé, Aretha Franklin and Tony Bennett, and has had his own big band for years.

On this new CD Palermo has turned his attention to the works of composers Frank Zappa (Palermo has arranged more than 300 Zappa tunes in his time) and Todd Rundgren, two significant musicians from his teenage years. He says, “Todd Rundgren holds a very special place in my heart... A lot of people who like the music of Zappa, also like Rundgren and Steely Dan, but there are enough Steely Dan cover bands out there…”   This doesn’t stop him from quoting Steely Dan in his scores – his arrangement of Rundgren’s Broke Down and Busted includes hints of The “In” Crowd, Zappa’s Brown Shoes Don’t Make It and a great swathe of Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic. He does this sort of thing a lot. On Rundgren’s Yer Fast, not two minutes long, he squeezes in references to Zappa’s Montana and Florentine Pogen, two tunes which he deals with at greater length later on in the CD.  This is action packed stuff.

Palermo says: "Arranging is the fun part for me. Zappa used to call it “dressing up the song”. Hearing an arrangement played is the cherry on top, but the process of writing, when the ideas are flowing, that’s the main meal. Sometimes I’ll be working on a song and something about it reminds me of another song. Instead of ignoring it, my ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] tells me, 'No, put that in there.' And people talk about ADD as if it’s a bad thing!"

The Ed Palermo Big Band are an exuberant 17-piece ensemble, with splendid singing from guest vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock, former singer with Frank Zappa’s bands. More excellent vocals come from guitarist Bruce McDaniel, who also produced the CD, and arranged a couple of numbers.  The ensemble playing is tight and exciting throughout and the soloists are all terrific. This includes remarkable solos from Palermo himself on guitar and alto sax.

I was unfamiliar with much of Todd Rundgren’s oeuvre, so some of the songs took me by surprise, for example, Emperor of the Highway (vocals from both Brock and McDaniel) – an unlikely homage to Gilbert and Sullivan. Despite the two disparate sources, the album feels coherent and moves seamlessly between the two composers – some tracks slide without pause from a Zappa tune to a Rundgren tune, like the huge Peaches En Regalia which morphs into Influenza, featuring an impressive violin solo from Katie Jacoby (and little snatches of Greig’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King too). Palermo has given many of the Rundgren tunes a Zappaish feel, although there are some exceptions: there is a gorgeous ballad, Hello It’s Me (from 1968) which could be a Beach Boys tune.

The arrangement of Zappa’s Absolutely Free (1968) is a gentle delight. It dispenses with the vocal line, focussing on a charming piano part from Bob Quaranta, showing how pleasingly melodic Zappa can be. By contrast, Zappa’s instrumental piece Echidna’s Arf (Of You) is presented here with what sounds like a choir, billed as the Louisiana Swindle Singers, but is in fact just multi-tracked McDaniel. The  arrangement of everyone’s favourite Zappa tune Montana is a show stopper, and Brock’s vocals are superlative. Palermo replaces the original’s Zappa guitar solo with an alto sax solo from himself. Another unexpected pleasure is an immaculate Afro-Cuban middle section which emerges during Zappa’s Florentine Pogen.  Palermo spent four years in Tito Puente’s Band, and has played with Celia Cruz and Eddie Palmieri so he knows exactly what he’s doing here.

This glorious CD is big band music for people for whom the rock and pop music of the 1960s and '70s are standards, just as the dancehall tunes of the '30s and '40s were the standards for a previous generation.

The liner notes are comedic (there is a credit for Alternative Executive Producer: Kellyanne Conway in there.) True to the spirit of Zappa, Ed Palermo balances serious music playing with humour and a lightness of touch. The music is very difficult to perform but this band seems to have no trouble at all.  Somebody please put the Ed Palermo Big Band on soon, preferably in the UK but anywhere else in Europe would do.  They would go down a storm.

The Ed Palermo Big Band:
Ed Palermo Arranger, Alto Saxophone, Guitar
Ronnie Buttacavoli Trumpet
John Bailey Trumpet
Charlie Gordon Trombone
Joe Fiedler Trombone
Matt Ingman Bass Trombone
Cliff Lyons Alto Saxophone, Clarinet
Phil Chester Alto Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute
Ben Kono Tenor Saxophone, Flute
Bill Straub Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet
Barbara Cifelli Baritone Saxophone
Bob Quaranta Acoustic Piano
Ted Kooshian Synthesizer
Paul Adamy Bass Guitar
Ray Marchica Drums
Bruce McDaniel Guitar, Vocals
Katie Jacoby Violin
Napolean Murphy Brock Guest vocalist

Track listing:
1.The Solemn Z-Men Credo
2.Peaches En Regalia (Frank Zappa)
3.Influenza (Todd Rundgren)
4.Yer Fast (Todd Rundgren)
5.Absolutely Free (Frank Zappa)
6.Breathless (Part 1) (Todd Rundgren)
7.Big Swifty (Frank Zappa)
8.Kiddie Boy (Todd Rundgren)
9.Montana (Frank Zappa)
10.Emperor of the Highway (Todd Rundgren)
11.You Are What You Is (Frank Zappa)
12.Echidna's Arf (Of You) (Frank Zappa) [feat. The Louisiana Swindle Singers]
13.Hello It's Me (Todd Rundgren)
14.Big Swifty Coda (Frank Zappa)
15.Wailing Wall (Todd Rundgren)
16.Florentine Pogen (Frank Zappa)
17.Flamingo (Todd Rundgren)
18.Marqueson's Chicken (Frank Zappa)
19.Song of the Viking (Todd Rundgren)
20.Janet's Big Dance Number (Frank Zappa)
21.Broke Down and Busted (Todd Rundgren)
22.Breathless (Part 2) (Todd Rundgren)
23.Zoot Allures (Frank Zappa)
24.Yer Fast (Reprise) (Todd Rundgren)

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