Music

Ed Palermo's 'Lousy Day'

With A Lousy Day in Harlem, the Ed Palermo Big Band abandons the Zappa tunes -- for now -- to focus on an engaging collection of jazzy tunes by Palermo and others.

A Lousy Day in Harlem
The Ed Palermo Big Band

Sky Cat

12 April 2019


A Lousy Day in Harlem, the new album by the Ed Palermo Big Band, is 2019's anti-"Old Town Road".

To be clear: no shade is being thrown at Lil Nas X and his memetic "Old Town Road", a simple, but quirky little rap/country hybrid tune that is apparently going to be on top of Billboard's "Hot 100" chart forever. Any pop culture phenomena that leads to Nine Inch Nail's Trent Reznor and achy-breaky Billy Ray Cyrus sharing part of a songwriting credit, while adding yet another idiosyncratic item to Cyrus' bizarre resume ("Achy Breaky Heart"! David Lynch's Mulholland Drive! Dionne Warwick duet partner! Father of Miley/Hannah!), is clearly beyond any critical reproach, at least from this writer.

But here's the thing about "Old Town Road". Depending on how you experience it, the song/video only takes up about two, or three, or five, minutes of your time per experience. However, when you fall down the "Old Town Road" rabbit hole, there are many other factors to consider besides the music: the various videos, the cultural implications, the is-it-both-rap-and-country debate, the career of Billy Ray Cyrus, and, ultimately, the origin story of the song/meme/video. Lil Nas X and Billy Ray carry tons of metadata during their short journey down "Old Town Road".

A Lousy Day in Harlem, on the other hand, asks that you spend more than one hour at a time focused on only one thing: the music. Each hour spent with this prime example of Ed Palermo's complex and engaging answer to the question "what should big band music sound like in 2019?" is time well spent.

After working several years as a session saxophone player in the late 1970s, Palermo scored a four-year-long gig in Tito Puente's band. By the early 1980s, he formed his first large scale jazz band, which led to the 18-member ensemble Palermo fronts today. The band has become well-known for several albums and live performances focusing on interpretations of Frank Zappa's music. The band also specializes in the tunes of Todd Rundgren and various British progressive rock bands. In fact, though it is neither a Zappa nor a Rundgren tune, watching the Palermo band tackle Yes' "Long Distance Roundaround" on YouTube is a perfect thumbnail sketch of Palermo's aesthetic.

Despite these rock leanings, the Ed Palermo Big Band is a jazz ensemble, and A Lousy Day in Harlem is fully immersed in jazz. The album is evenly divided between Palermo originals and expertly-arranged covers. Some of the non-originals are fairly well-known but arranged with the kinds of twists you might expect from a Zappa acolyte. For example, John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" opens with saxes playing the banjo duel from the Deliverance theme music, and Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't" manages to contain passing references to several other Monk tunes in a relatively short time.

Other non-Palermo compositions, such as Duke Ellington's late-period "Brasilliance" and Egberto Gigmonti's "Sanfona" may not be well-known outside the jazz realm, but are brilliantly interpreted by the Palermo band.

Happily, Palermo's compositions stand strong alongside the Monk and Ellington and Coltrane. Album opener "Laurie Frink", a propulsive tune with several twists and turns, was a favorite of Frink's, who was a trumpet player in the Palermo band and a music educator. Frink died in 2013, leading Palermo to rename this composition to honor her memory. And though much of A Lousy Day in Harlem focuses on upbeat tunes, another Palermo tune, "Affinity", is a lovely ballad that takes some unexpected but welcome detours.

As for musicianship, several members of the Ed Palermo Big Band could be cited for their intricate and beautiful solos throughout A Lousy Day in Harlem, but having amazing musical chops is clearly a prerequisite to being in a band that can effortlessly hop from Monk to Zappa to the "My Three Sons" theme song. To single out any particular soloist almost seems unfair, but it is fair to say that brilliance abounds.

While A Lousy Day in Harlem doesn't contain the more obvious humor of the band's Zappa-related work, there is humor to be found, particularly in the album's title and cover, which riff on Art Kane's classic "Great Day in Harlem" photo of 57 jazz greats, shot on 12 August 1958. The Palermo album cover photo was taken by Hugh Brennan, exactly 60 years later. Also, it is a good bet that the liner notes mention of Kellyanne Conway as "alternative executive producer" is probably fake news.

And who knows? Maybe someday, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus will sit in with the Ed Palermo Big Band to sing along with a scorching horn-fueled rendition of "Old Town Road". Stranger things have happened.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.

Music

Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.

Music

Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.

Music

'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.

Film

Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".

Music

12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.

Music

Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.

Music

Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.

Music

Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".

Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.