Swinging Modern Sounds #101: A Really Big Band


As a person who is concerned with all things that have a vestigial relationship to the musical output of Frank Zappa, it was inevitable that I would come across the work of the Ed Palermo Big Band. Palermo’s arrangements of Zappa songs have, over the years, become some of the preeminent modern renderings of Zappa’s originals (and the competition is pretty intense, as it includes Zappa’s son Dweezil, a guitar virtuoso, who plays Frank Zappa compositions regularly, as do “serious” new music groups like the Ensemble Modern), by virtue of their inventiveness, originality, and kinetic intensity.

I had sort of religious awakening to the beauty of Palermo’s band, to its antic and colorful writing for an exceedingly large and tight horn section, after first hearing their recording of Zappa’s sad, beautiful, mortality-afflicted song “Watermelon in Easter Hay.” As with Palermo’s arrangements elsewhere, the song is both note-for-note perfect in passages and highly idiosyncratic elsewhere—as Palermo notes in our conversation below, his rendering of “Watermelon” also includes the theme music from Twin Peaks, by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch. This idiosyncrasy, with concentrated familiarity, seems more like a kind of wide-eyed and comic engagement with music in the largest possible sense, all kinds of music, in just the way Zappa himself liked to break out “Louie, Louie” for four bars, in the middle of whatever, before going back to what he was playing previously.

Palermo, that is, constitutes conceptual continuity with the Zappa body of work, with its ideas, with its melodic singularity, while not feeling a slavish need to recreate the arrangements in traditional ways at all. It’s hard, after listening to Ed Palermo for a while, to miss how incredibly joyful his writing is, how beautiful, thoughtful, and funny it is, and what a mark it makes on what rock and roll can be, on what jazz can be, and on what American music can and ought to sound like (bearing in mind, meanwhile, that he has transcribed and arranged a lot of British prog rock, too).

A short way of saying this is: I can’t believe I waited as long as I did to dig into this body of work, and its ideas about the big band tradition, this work which is as moving and surprising as anything that is being made in the “serious” music world these days, while also retaining an unpretentious love of good pop songcraft and comedy and the sheer community sense of a big band. Palermo, I think, is a one-of-a-kind arranger, sort of like Raymond Scott loaded to the eyeballs on hallucinogens, playing with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Carla Bley.

The interview that follows was assembled by email over the course of many weeks in the fall of 2019. Palermo had a habit of disappearing for a while, only to return later with a real zeal to talk. He emailed just like his music, with great joy and gusto. His website is here, and features great video, and he is also well represented on Bandcamp, via his excellent label Cuneiform, and you can also find him on Spotify and at iTunes.


The Rumpus: I can remember my first contact with the music of Frank Zappa very clearly. As with so many things, it came from my older sister, in 1974. It was one day in summertime, and she was hanging out with some slightly shady, pot-smoking boys, and put onto the turntable the record called Over-Nite Sensation (the exact album seems to change in my imagination, but I think it was this one first, if I am being rigorously honest), which despite being one of the “pop-y” Frank Zappa albums really struck me as strange and new immediately. What was your first contact with the music? Were you already playing saxophone by then? What else were you listening to in those days?

Ed Palermo: Like you, most of the truly great music I was exposed to came from an older sibling. In my case, it was my oldest brother Nick. He brought home Zappa’s second album, Absolutely Free. My initial impression was that the album was really funny. “Call Any Vegetable” in particular. Of course, “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” had funny parts in it as well. It didn’t take me long to notice the incredibly beautiful music behind those silly lyrics and vocals.

I was just starting playing the sax at that point. Seventh or eighth grade. Prior to that I played clarinet in school and guitar for fun.

My entire family were Beatles fanatics, since 1964. We always had Beatles going on in the house. By the time we got into Zappa, we were also listening to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Johnny and Edgar Winter, and, soon after, Todd Rundgren.

Rumpus: I’m really interested in the Todd Rundgren thing (as it was also an area of special interest for me, too), and I’m wondering, if it was the late 60s, if you mean the Nazz, or if you started with the early Todd solo albums, like Runt, etc.

Palermo: Yes, we started with the Nazz. A Philly band. But even though we used to go to Philly to see all of our shows, I never saw them live. My oldest brother Nick did, at a club called The Trauma. The first two Nazz albums were always playing in our house because we all loved them. Some of that music is still influential for me. In particular, the last song on Nazz Nazz called “A Beautiful Song.” Every part of that song is epic, especially Todd’s guitar solos. He’s one of my favorite blues guitarists to this day. I’ve followed Todd’s career ever since.

Rumpus: And what, from your point of view, is the shared terrain between the two, Zappa and Rundgren? With Zappa we are talking about the tricky meters, and the incredibly interesting melodies, and, especially, seems to me, the sheer beauty of the instrumental writing. Todd, though very musical, has some different thematic concerns. How do you unite, in your mind, these two interests?

Palermo: Great question. When I think back to my high school days, I can say that I connected with Todd when it came to self-pity. I was dumped by girls a couple times in high school. Todd’s music was always so sentimental. I felt like he was there for me to help heal my broken heart.

Zappa, on the other hand, was never sentimental. “Broken hearts are for assholes,” he would say. His music was emotional and passionate and intense but almost never sentimental. That’s the way I see it, anyway.

Rumpus: I’m interested in what you say about Zappa and sentimentality, because though he does seem pretty fierce about songs that were too emotionally driven. And yet there are songs where he does sort of get into it a little bit, and those are songs I really like, e.g. “Village of the Sun” or “Cucamonga.” And of course there is “Watermelon in Easter Hay.” Was that a tough song for you to conquer? I know Dweezil Zappa waited a really long time to play it himself.

Palermo: I did wait a while before arranging it. The inside story about that song is that supposedly, according to Gail [Zappa], that was one of three songs he didn’t want anyone to play after his death. How true that is, I don’t know. I guess the only person to ask at this point is Dweezil. (The other two were “Black Napkins” and “Zoot Allures.”)

I’d heard about this deathbed request right after Frank’s passing. I abided by the request for a few years when I realized how silly it is. That means the only people not allowed to play those songs are the people who heard that the request was made in the first place. The great sax player Javon Jackson recorded “Zoot.” He was never a Zappa fan and hence didn’t know about Frank’s request. No one loves Zappa’s music more than me but even I had to say, “Sorry, Frank. No one is allowed to make such a demand, not even you.” So I arranged “Zoot Allures” first, then “Black Napkins.”

Then, I had the epiphany that the only true contribution I can give the Zappa world in terms of “Watermelon” is an interpretation by Katie Jacoby, my brilliant violinist. So I arranged it for her and mashed it up with “Falling” from the Twin Peaks soundtrack.

Rumpus: What was the first Zappa piece you arranged?

Palermo: I believe the first one was “Yo Cats” from the Mothers of Prevention album. I was intrigued by the complex chord progression that was obscured by the swinging jazz feel. At first listen, it comes across as a straight-ahead, hard-bop tune with funny and satirical lyrics. But the more I listened, the more I realized that the chord progression is truly groundbreaking. No one has ever used chords like that ever. At least far as I know. So, I went about the painstaking task of figuring out the chords, then arranging it for my big band. The tune is perfect for big band. I did record this arrangement of “Yo Cats,” but haven’t released it yet. Soon after arranging that, I arranged “Toads of the Short Forest,” then “King Kong.”

Rumpus: Did this come after working as an arranger in less-demanding musical environments?

Palermo: It’s interesting because the same time I was transcribing (figuring out the notes Frank wrote) and arranging his music, I was also transcribing and arranging Sinatra tunes for a society band. A society band is a glorified wedding and bar mitzvah band. So it wasn’t uncommon for me to simultaneously work on a complex Zappa tune while also working on a Nelson Riddle chart. The latter was how I made a living for well over a decade. Working on music by those two masters—wow!—what an education! Nelson Riddle’s charts weren’t as complicated as Zappa’s but totally brilliant in that genre.

Rumpus: What were the particular difficulties associated with arranging Zappa’s work when you first began doing it?

Palermo: Mainly the fact that Zappa always thought outside the box. After a while, Nelson Riddle’s charts did kind of follow a pattern. There were big similarities between ”I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and ”Night and Day,” and ”All or Nothing at All.” But Zappa’s music never followed a pattern. Every song was a brand new journey.

Rumpus: Can you describe a little bit how “Yo Cats” is interesting? It’s funny this was the beginning for your Zappa arranging, because it’s a song that I can’t say I have attended to closely, when there are songs (“Regyptian Strut” would be an example, or “Inca Roads”) that I have listened to at such great length, and so frequently that there’s nothing I don’t know about them. But Prevention was never an album that I was preoccupied with, and when there are songs that are manifestly hard, like, say, “Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue,” it seems really interesting to me that “Yo Cats” was the beginning. I’m interested to try to hear what you hear in it.

Palermo: I know. It seems weird that I didn’t start with one of my beloved early-period songs like “King Kong.” “Yo Cats” has fascinating chords. And it went perfectly with Zappa’s acerbic lyrics about the LA jingle scene. There’s really not much more I can say about what intrigued so much about that song. I also love the jazz organ. It really swings.

Rumpus: What makes a big band such an attractive form for these arrangements? Zappa himself used a complete horn section only at particular moments in his output, and “Yo Cats,” among other pieces you have arranged, comes from the period when there were no horns at all in his band. Why is the big band the right way to recast these pieces?

Palermo: I wouldn’t say it’s the ”right way” per se. It’s just another one of the many directions one can go with Frank’s music. When I was in high school absorbing all the incredible music the 60s had to offer, the horn bands always intrigued me. I loved Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, and even the lesser-known horn bands like Mandrill, War, and If. And of course, Paul Butterfield’s horn bands along with Mike Bloomfield and the Electric Flag. Do you have my album that pays tribute to those last two? Electric Butter?

When I started up my big band, it was really just a way to teach myself the craft of arranging. Mainly on my original compositions. When I started arranging Zappa’s music many years later, I had different musical goals for each tune of his I endeavored. For instance, I wanted ”King Kong” to be bigger and hairier than The Mothers’ versions on Uncle Meat. I wanted ”Toads of the Short Forest” to be more colorful, what with the flutes, clarinets, and harpsichord.

Every arrangement served the ultimate purpose of paying homage to one of the greatest melody makers ever—Frank Zappa. It was never my intent to replicate Zappa’s versions. Why even do it if that’s what you’re going to do? It’ll only be a fourth-rate version of the original if that’s what you do, in my view.

Rumpus: Right now I am stuck on your British Invasion/proggy stuff.

Palermo: That makes me very happy, Rick. It got great reviews but I often wonder how closely people listen to my music.

Rumpus: I too really love King Crimson (and Traffic, and Jeff Beck), and I love your version of “Schizoid Man,” as well as “Lark’s Tongue In Aspic, II.” The arrangements in those cases go really far afield in ways I find fascinating, toward a jazzier core in the original than most listeners would perhaps intuitively recognize. I think with “Schizoid” you sort of concentrate primarily on the middle section of the original and work your way back slowly to a dramatic rendering of the riffs most people would associate with the song.

Palermo: I have a few different arrangements on “Schizoid.” The one that landed on the album is a conglomeration of the ones before it. Believe it or not, there are versions that are more schizophrenic than that one. I often use those charts as a set closer which is when I like to go full-bore on the surprise element. I’ve segued into “Good Vibrations” (verse only), “Happy Together” (chorus only), and many more. “Lark’s Tongue” is actually Bruce McDaniel’s chart.

Rumpus: Similarly, on Zappa’s “Echidna’s Arf,” you begin with a sort of vernacular jazz opening that is completely your own before getting to the extremely complex melodic material. Can you speak a little to how these structural ideas came to you? (I should say that the freedom of these interpretations is really winning and part of what makes these records so much fun. They are both reverent and irreverent.)

Palermo: Well, fun is the operative word. In the case of “Echidna,” it starts with a jazzy shuffle while on top of that, the organ plays a classical piece by the French composer Francis Poulenc. And I realize as I typed that sentence just how pretentious I sound. At that point, I do my “slice and dice” routine, taking parts of Zappa’s original and rearranging them in different orders. The really jazzy part in the middle is Cannonball Adderley’s “Work Song.” It’s Cannonball’s sax solo orchestrated for the five saxes in harmony.

Rumpus: Can we talk a little bit about composing for the band? One thing I was very interested in was how much of this big band is scored in the Ellingtonian way, for the particular players? Obviously, you were thinking of Katie Jacoby’s violin when you decided to do “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” but is it the same with the brass instruments, that you are thinking about what particular players can do in the Ed Palermo Big Band?

Palermo: I totally think of my players when I compose or arrange a song. “The One with the Balloon” on A Lousy Day in Harlem is so perfect for Charley Gordon’s trombone. And Bob Quaranta’s piano on “Brasilliance” is made to order for a player like Bob.

Now, all of my brass and sax players know the be-bop terrain. They all play the hell out of chord changes in that genre, so I could have assigned anybody in the band to play on, say, “Well You Needn’t,” but for certain types of songs, I do have my favorites.

Rumpus: Your remark about be-bop and the band suggests that jazz is really a starting point for the project. Lousy Day is certainly a jazz album, and so is much of your half of the compositions on Oh No! Not Jazz!!. But there’s also a lot of eclecticism in the work as a whole. Is jazz a starting point for the work, or do you think of the Palermo Big Band as operating beyond genre?

Palermo: Great question. I think it depends on the song. I’m always mindful that I have a band full of great jazz improvisers who really want to play solos. But sometimes the genre I choose doesn’t call for that. The Procol Harum tunes we do are not “jazz friendly,” in my view, though they are stunningly beautiful tunes. Zappa’s music lends itself much more to a jazz interpretation. So when we play live, I make sure the guys who really want to solo are well-represented, but I also leave time to do the non-jazzy stuff that I happen to adore.

Rumpus: This raises the interesting question for me, about how much jazz was undergirding the Zappa compositions originally, even before you got to them. When Frank says “anything, anywhere, any time, for any reason,” or however that quotation goes, it seems that sometimes it means jazz, and maybe even in songs where you don’t expect it, but maybe not more than sometimes. Does a composition have some relevance to a jazz idiom to sustain your interest as an arranger, or is it not a matter of genre at all?

Palermo: It’s really not a matter of genre. To want to arrange a song, the only criterion is my passion for the song. It really doesn’t have to be jazz-oriented at all. And it doesn’t even have to be something I can make jazzy. For instance, on One Child Left Behind, we do Zappa’s “Evelyn, A Modified Dog.” This little gem is not jazzy at all. I guess you could call it a parody of classical music of some sort. When I orchestrated it—Zappa’s version is just harpsichord and vocal—my intention wasn’t to jazzify it. It was to make it even more classical. I felt that would bring out the beauty of the melody and harmony.

Rumpus: You mentioned how much your players want to solo. How much of the soloing, for example, the violin solo on “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” is written out? How much is given to the soloist to work out? This to me follows on the earlier question about how jazz-influenced is the band, because it’s sort of a question about improvisation itself. Zappa seems, to me, to have become less improvisational after a point—after the ‘88 band, e.g., he seems to have stopped playing guitar, and therefore to have stopped soloing entirely—and so the commitment to “King Kong” styled improv seems to have evaporated some. But what is your feeling about it in your band? Is it a gift you give the players, or is it a form that moves you? Or both?

Palermo: “Watermelon” was totally written out. My brilliant guitarist, Bruce McDaniel, transcribed Zappa’s guitar lines for Katie to play on fiddle. I’m sure Katie could have improvised it beautifully but I wanted it to be a true tribute to Zappa. Katie makes the solo her own, anyway. I rarely have the band members play written-out solos. I truly believe the real magic happens when they are left to their own devices.

It’s funny because I write so many arrangements that by the time we do a gig, I realize that I didn’t leave a whole lot of solo space for the players. I’m always reprimanding myself for that. ”I’ll have them solo more the next gig.” My band probably does have less solo space than a lot of other big bands, but I do believe that it’s important to have a good amount of improvisation to light the fire for the rhythm section.

Rumpus: I’m interested in a couple of points with respect to coloration and timbre in the band. For example, I think Bruce McDaniel takes a really great solo in your recorded “Inca Roads,” which is certainly an homage to Zappa’s incredible solo from the One Size Fits All on that track, and he both pays attention to Zappa’s melody (for me definitely one of the most beautiful guitar solos ever) but, in the end goes his own way. He thereby proves his chops. But you really lean into Katie’s fiddle playing in the ensemble, and on “Watermelon In Easter Hay,” you give a truly legendary guitar solo to the fiddle player. This seems really interesting to me. Katie’s figurations as a violinist have some classical feeling about them. You have thereby replaced a rock and roll instrument with something closer to a folk instrument or an early jazz instrument (which is not to say that Bruce is not an essential player throughout, because he is). Can you talk about that decision a little bit?

Palermo: When you hear the word “fiddle,” one does think of country or bluegrass. Katie doesn’t really play in that genre. She is first and foremost a blues player with strong classical roots. Katie’s main influence is Sugarcane Harris.

Rumpus: A related question: given the size of the ensemble is, why only one drummer? Percussion and really virtuosic thinking about percussion is essential to the Zappa canon, and to some of the other music you arrange (King Crimson, e.g., in 1973, had two percussionists, and now has three). Did you consider and discard the idea of more percussionists in the ensemble?

Palermo: For live shows, I rarely have enough room for the band that I have. And when we record, I want it to come out as close to a live show as possible. You know, when we started the Zappa shows twenty-five years ago, we didn’t even have guitar or a second keyboard player. It was my brother’s thought that we needed that keyboard sampler to imitate xylophone, marimba, vibes, tympani, etc. It was the best move I ever made getting Ted Kooshian in the band. He’s amazing.

At the time, a lot of my audience felt Zappa’s music really needs guitar. I fought it every step of the way, only having guitarists guest with the band at some shows. Instead, I found myself a young singer to join the band. His name is Carl Restivo. He just happens to play killer guitar. So I killed two birds with one stone. When Carl moved to LA, my bass player Paul Adamy introduced me to Bruce McDaniel. He’s not only an amazing guitarist and singer but also a great recording engineer and producer, and possibly the smartest dude I’ve ever met.

But to answer your question, I’m happy with the instrumentation the way it is. When we record, I will occasionally add a percussion of some sort but it’s usually Ted Kooshian’s sampler.

Rumpus: What’s your theory of conducting? Is it just on an as-needed basis with the horn section? And how have you evolved your technique? I was, at one point, briefly a student of Butch Morris’s “conduction” technique, which like Zappa’s conducting, seemed pretty free and self-generated. How do you think about it in your ensemble? Is it a duty, or a joyful part of the thing for you?

Palermo: Conducting! This is an easy one to answer. Yes, it’s just as-needed. And I haven’t evolved my technique at all. I don’t think about the role in the ensemble, and it is mostly duty.

I’m being totally serious. I’m a terrible conductor. In fact, the only thing that has ”evolved” over the years is the fact that I purposely arrange the music so I don’t have to conduct. Whenever the drums don’t play and the horns, who normally slow down left to their own devices without a timekeeper, it’s up to me to keep them honest. But I have a tendency to follow the time of the band. I’m not a good leader in that way. I don’t have much confidence in my own time. So I very rarely arrange stuff that depends on my time.

I’m only exaggerating slightly. I greatly admire those folks who are good at it. I’m good at pointing at people when it’s time for them to solo, though!

Whenever you see us perform live or on our YouTube channel, my arm-flailing has no impact whatsoever other than to keep me busy so no one gets hurt.

Rumpus: What is your attitude about integrating your own compositions into the band now?

Palermo: That is a great question. One of the unique advantages I have with my concept of mashing up Zappa’s music (and anybody’s music for that matter) is the fact that I can insert my own snippets in there. Of course, no one knows my original material so they don’t recognize those themes. They probably think they’re Zappa tunes they just don’t recognize. Those songs I insert can be mine or obscure motifs of anybody from any genre. If I like the motif and feel it makes sense in the context of the central song, it goes in. That simple.

I like to think that someday my scores will be studied by universities who will then have me as a guest so I can point out every motif and explain where I got it from and why I felt it fit into the context of the song. Maybe in my old age. But I’m already sixty-five. I don’t have that much time left!

The ironic thing is my scores were studied at one point in my career. At the very beginning! Really! My first LP, called “Ed Palermo” (later called “Papier Mache” when I transferred it to CD) caught the attention of Ray Wright, the jazz teacher at Eastman School of Music. He taught my scores from that album at Eastman! Crazy, right? One of the students was Maria Schneider, who is one of my favorite composers now. I was twenty-five!

Rumpus: Do you still enjoy doing that Zappa material, or would you go further afield with the arrangements? Do you envision a time when the band might be more consistently organized around your compositions?

Palermo: I have said for years (decades now) that as much as I love Zappa’s music, I’d rather do my own music because they’re my babies. But I have to say, I think my mind has changed. I still love my songs but the audience reaction to Zappa’s music is so amazing and so organically infectious, I think I prefer playing Zappa’s music! At least live.

My guess is I truly need a mixture of Zappa’s, my originals, and other artists’ music to be happy. And I need to slice and dice the material so I can piece them together so as to not make just another reading of the original songs. I’m pretty antsy. I get bored easy!


Featured photograph by Hugh Brennan. Second photograph of Ed Palermo by Bert Saraco. Third photograph of Ed Palermo by Susan Palermo.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →