[30 August 2006]
All his adult life, Frank Zappa struggled to be recognised as a serious composer who just happened to be working largely in a rock idiom. The one happy ending to his life—cut tragically short by prostate cancer in 1993—was that, by dint of sheer bloody-mindedness, unshakable self-belief and the liberal application of a heck of a lot of his own money, by the time he died he had finally persuaded the rest of the world that he’d been right all along: orchestras and ensembles all over the globe continue to interpret his compositions, with the approval of classical music heavyweights such as the conductor Pierre Boulez. It is generally coming to be recognised that Zappa was—and remains in posterity—a singular American composer of great breadth and vision, every bit as important as Copland, Ives or Gershwin.
Strange, then, that the jazz world has been somewhat slower to catch on to the brilliance of Zappa’s arrangements. Zappa always gave the impression of being slightly dismissive of jazz—largely, one assumes, because of his high-brow ambitions—but, nevertheless, his work was constantly infused with elements of jazz: despite his protestations, he’s rightly seen as one of the original pioneers of jazz-rock, and his many bands boasted countless accomplished jazz musicians, from George Duke to Jean Luc Ponty.
So, in a way, it’s possible to see what Ed Palermo is doing with his Big Band as an attempt to restate Zappa’s jazz credentials on the back of his new-found classical kudos. For this second album with the Big Band, Palermo repeats the formula of the first, Plays the Music of Frank Zappa, by arranging some of Zappa’s most fiendishly funky and groove-based compositions for a full-scale 16-piece jazz ensemble, with the emphasis on huge, rambunctious Count Basie-style horn charts and plenty of room for soloing.
And you know what? It really burns. Take the title track, for instance, which transforms Zappa’s original jaunty pop-pastiche into an irresistibly sweaty, hugely authentic slice of percussion-heavy salsa, without losing one ounce of Zappa’s tongue-in-cheek humour. This is masterful arrangement: the ability to see beyond the idiom and find instead the fundamental building blocks that give a piece of music its essential character.
Elsewhere, Palermo plays it more straight—more faithfully recreating Zappa’s originals, such as the opener, “RDNZL” or “Pound for a Brown on the Bus”—but with some of the thorniness of Zappa’s ragged, disorientating charts smoothed out and sweetened. Mostly, Palermo seems intent on finding the latent groove within these pieces—often obscured by Zappa’s penchant for tricky time signatures, but here brought to the fore and held together by Paul Adamy’s rock-solid electric bass. And when Palermo drops in a few bars of straight-ahead, 4/4, up-tempo, swinging jazz, which he does on a number of occasions, these tunes flower into the jazzy workouts he clearly always imagined them to be. It’s a winning vindication of his whole concept in re-scoring these pieces for jazz big band, and a genuine treat for Zappa-friendly jazz heads.
As you’d hope for an album devoted to Zappa, the humour is never far away. “Gumbo Variations” takes Zappa’s filthy, snarling funk rock crawler from Hot Rats and, by throwing on some lush, Dragnet horns, transforms it into a buoyant piece of Blues Brothers party music—with Ian Underwood’s original, braying sax solo scored for mass horns to become the central hook (a trick Zappa himself often used when transcribing his guitar solos as horn parts).
Clearly, this is a labour of love for Palermo, born of his genuine admiration and passion for Zappa’s music. It’s a devotion that really shines in his interpretation of “Mom and Dad”, Zappa’s tragic prophesy of the Kent State massacres, segued here with “Oh No”, a damning put down of air-head Flower Power platitudes and one of Zappa’s favourite compositions that appeared in one form or another on at least five of his albums. Sung with understated tenderness by the band’s guitarist, Carl Restivo, these interpretations sound like fan mail to the late composer, with “Oh No” in particular revelling in the rich, orchestral setting of the original version (found on Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy).
The bottom line is that, for Zappa fans, this is almost as good as a new Zappa album and the closest thing we’re ever going to get. Zappa once famously said “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.” Ed Palermo is making one hell of a wonderful stink.