Ed and the band bring a sense of humor and a ‘regular guy’ sensibility that reaches into our collective adolescence and produces a more sophisticated version of the music we grew up on…
The Adventures of Zodd Zundgren
Artist: The Ed Palermo Big Band
Label: Cuneiform Records
24 tracks / 74:10
With The Adventures of Zodd Zundgren, The Ed Palermo Big Band delivers one of the best produced, best performed, and even best track-ordered albums in their catalog so far. It’s a totally satisfying project featuring wonderful song selections, all written by either Todd Rundgren or the late Frank Zappa – hence, the character name Zodd Zundgren (sounds like Todd Rundgren but with a bunch of Zs – get it?). The comic book superhero theme is not only a title device but carries through the album’s booklet artwork, which is a delight (thank you, Hugh and Matthew Brennan – excelsior!). Translating the work of two such varied artists into a cohesive Big Band format is a heroic task indeed, but Ed and the gang have knocked out an impressive 24 tracks-worth like a musical Stan Lee conducting a room full of Jack Kirbys (forgive the indulgence in my own comic book nerd-ness).
After a 25-second acapella snatch of “Absolutely Free,” the band launches into “Peaches en Regalia,” certainly a signature Zappa tune, and a track that simply knocks it out of the park with an energetic attack and a sterling sax solo by Cliff Lyons. Typical of Ed’s wonderful arrangements, “Peaches” retains the essence of Zappa’s composition but is infused with the character and energy of the Big Band. Palermo’s love of both Frank and Todd is obvious in the respect shown the melodies of the originals – yet there’s a freshness here that reinvents the songs in front of your ears, making them accessible on a new level.
The first Rundgren song on the album is “Influenza,” a wonderful composition presented in an energetic arrangement that brings out the inherent funk/jazz/pop-fusion of the piece. Katie Jacoby states the melody on electric violin and performs an articulate solo as well, while Palermo teases Grieg’s “In the Hall of The Mountain King” and Zappa’s “King Kong” before the whole thing comes to an end. Of course this is part of the game you can play with all of the Big Band’s albums: guess where the sneaky little melodies are coming from. I never quite get 100% but I’m working on it…
As you can imagine, with more than an hour of music, there are plenty of highlights – some of which I’ll comment on – but the great thing about what Ed does with these projects is that he keeps great music alive and fresh, and in many cases is introducing it to new listeners. Personally, I’m better acquainted with Frank Zappa’s music than I am with Todd’s, but these arrangements drove me to my computer to look up the originals. To my surprise, the stunning melodies that I heard on the Rundgren songs were really all right there from the start! This is the service that Ed Palermo offers along with his wonderful arrangements – preserving the integrity of the original artist’s work, he creates a musical primer to the great songs of the classic rock period, conforms it to a big band format, and brings it to another level.
So who’s playing this stuff? Bob Quaranta plays acoustic piano; Ronnie Buttacavoli, John Bailey, and Steve Jankowski play trumpet; Paul Adamy handles the electric bass; Bill Straub, Phil Chester, Ben Kono, and Cliff Lyons play sax, along with Barbara ‘How Does She Even Lift That Thing’ Cifelli on baritone; Ted Kooshian plays electric keyboards; Katie Jacoby plays electric violin; Ray Marchica sits at the drum kit (and plays, too); Matt Ingman, Charley Gordon, and Michael Boschen play trombone; on vocals and guitar is Bruce ‘not that Bruce’ McDaniel (who also produced the album and arranged “Big Swifty,” “Big Swifty Coda,” and “Echidna’s Arf (of You).” Ed plays alto sax, wrote the arrangements, occasionally wears a cape, and sometimes holds foreign objects in his hands in a threatening manner. Two special observations: Bruce McDaniel’s Take 6-like acapella version of Zappa’s “Echidna’s Arf (of You)” is brave and brilliant. What a pleasure and surprise! Ditto for Ed’s guitar playing (yes, I said guitar playing) on “Kiddie Boy” and “Marqueson’s Chicken.” I mean, who knew? Eddie ‘blues-boy’ Palermo …it has a ring to it.
The great Napoleon Murphy Brock returns to the studio to bring his amazing vocals to “Montana,” “Emperor of the Highway,” and “Florentine Pogen,” which he originally sang with Frank’s band in the mid-seventies. Kudos to Ted Kooshian for his organ solo on the jazzy outro. Both “Florentine Pogan” and “Montana” also show up – briefly – on Rundgren’s “Yer Fast.” For those playing Ed’s musical version of Where’s Waldo, “Song of The Viking” contains a hint of “Saint Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast” near the end, “Inca Roads” wind their way a bit through “Wailing Wall,” and “Broke Down and Busted” incorporates a bit of Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic” in the instrumental section.
Ed’s arrangement of “Absolutely Free’ is maybe the best version on record – stunningly beautiful. This instrumental version of one of Zappa’s early songs brings out all of the melodic beauty and showcases it for your ears. The blistering horn attack of “Big Swifty” is always a pleasure. Zappa’s dreamy, jazzy “Zoot Allures” gets a wonderful treatment, and if you want to do yourself a favor, listen closely to the immaculate bass lines played by Paul Ademy. …and who but The Ed Palermo Big Band would cover “Janet’s Big Dance Number”?
“Breathless” surprised me with great chord changes and a strong melody. Likewise, Todd’s “Wailing Wall,” with its delicate melody and evocative mood, caught me off-guard. In a different vein, “Flamingo,” arranged by Pierre Piscatelli, felt like a lively Broadway overture. Rundgren’s most well-known song, “Hello it’s Me,” brilliantly sung by Bruce McDaniel, is possibly the ideal version of the song. Blasphemy, I know, but we’re apparently dealing with super-beings here.
Yes, there’s a ‘hidden’ track. Some of you will find it worth waiting for and some of you might prefer to let it remain hidden. Depends on your sense of humor….
The Ed Palermo Big Band is swinging big band music for a generation steeped in classic rock and roll by the likes of The Beatles, Zappa, Edgar Winter, Procol Harum, Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren and other legendary rockers of the era. There’s a wonderful lack of pretentiousness about Ed and the band – a sense of humor and a ‘regular guy’ sensibility that reaches into our collective adolescence and produces a more sophisticated version of the music we grew up on. Ed synthesizes swing, rock, blues, jazz and pop and creates a rainbow bridge between the genres, wide enough for Thor and the rest of The Avengers to have a Be-bop tango dance-off against the Justice League and the Soul Train dancers.
Stay tuned for the further adventures of The Ed Palermo Big Band. Until then, check out The Adventures of Zodd Zundgren….
4 ½ TOCKS.
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