Ed Palermo Big Band

Ed Palermo Big Band

The people at The Iridium were not there for a dance contest – they were there for the music, and as Frank used to say, 'music is the best.' ...and – as more and more people were entering the already-packed venue – it was obvious that the music was enough.

The Ed Palermo Big Band with special guest Napoleon Murphy Brock

The Iridium Jazz Club – NYC – August 3, 2011

It was more like 'city in the rain' than "Village of the Sun" as we approached the silvery facade of The Iridium Jazz club – but ironically enough, it was the distinctive bass line of that very song that greeted our ears as we stepped downstairs into the tightly-packed venue. Ten horn players, two keyboardists (one of which at a 'real' piano), a drummer, a bass player and lead guitarist were assembling on the just-barely-big-enough stage, waiting for the man himself – Ed Palermo (who also contributed some hot sax work) – to wind his way through the crowd and step up to his precarious perch in front of this assembled Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus of a band to count out the intro to the first song.

Fans of Frank Zappa's music are a demanding lot – fairly fanatical and detail-oriented, as well as ...well, a little obsessed. Arguably one of the best ways to hear Zappa's music performed live these days is to catch The Ed Palermo Big Band, whose faithful (yet not slavishly imitative) renditions of the man's demanding compositions will delight even the most finicky fans of the Zappa catalog. The first song of the set was the massive, imposing, ponderous "Regyption Strut," which made obvious the fact that the Palermo band was a band to be reckoned with. Fans old enough to own original vinyl, sitting alongside younger fans that were born after Frank had already left us, rocked back and forth to the sheer power of the main themes and showed obvious appreciation for the fine soloing from Palermo's group.

Before the night was through the body count onstage would reach eighteen as electric violinist Katy Jacoby joined in for several instrumental spots, and Zappa alumnus Napoleon Murphy Brock joined the band (and energized the crowd) with impressive sax and flute parts, general high-energy, and yes – dancing: his vocals were shockingly flexible, powerful and spot-on. Brock's energy, humor and obvious delight in performing is matched by his stunning vocal work. Skipping through octaves, singing complicated riffs and lyrics that can't afford any missteps, offering a falsetto lick seconds before dropping down to a low baritone phrase, Brock re-creates his own original parts from his days on stage with Zappa, as well as re-inventing vocals from songs he was not originally part of, making them his own.

The concert was like hearing a 'best of' album. Sure, you never get every song you want, but there's not a clinker in the bunch! Not one to shy away from Zappa's more challenging pieces, like "Echidns'a Arf (of You)" and "The Inca Roads," Palermo mines Zappa's impressive storehouse, finding not only the big, well-known, often-covered material but also the jazzy little gems like "Twenty Small Cigars," or "Little Umbrellas." Not forgetting that Frank also asked the musical question, 'does humor belong in music?' Palermo balanced the heavy-duty moments with songs like "Po-Jama People," "Uncle Remus," and a Napoleon Murphy Brock showcase, "Florentine Pogen." The ensemble playing was a thing of beauty, the soloing swung mightily, and the band-leader looked mighty happy. And with good reason...

Palermo's arrangements of this material – so precious to the legion of Zappa fans – are respectful to the spirit of the original compositions but carefully incorporate the style and personality of Ed and this wonderful group of musicians, merging Big Band Jazz with Zappa's often impossible-to-categorize pieces. One of the wonderful things that happens with Palermo's Zappa tributes is that we get to hear the music in its own context – apart from the sometimes frustrating sociological theatrics of Zappa stage shows that sometimes obscured the strength of the compositions. The people at The Iridium were not there for a dance contest – they were there for the music, and as Frank used to say, 'music is the best.' Ed Palermo's Big Band provides a platform for the wonderful, complex, melodic (and, yes – sometimes chaotic) music of Frank Zappa, and – as more and more people were entering the already-packed venue – it was obvious that the music was enough.

- Bert Saraco (words and images)