Best known for his critically-acclaimed reinterpretations of the works of Frank Zappa over the course of several albums (The Ed Palermo Big Band Plays Frank Zappa, Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance, and Eddy Loves Frank), New Jersey saxophonist and band leader Ed Palermo sets his sights across the pond for his latest collection of creative jazz reinterpretations of pop songs. With his 18-piece ensemble in tow, Palermo takes on a handful of Beatles’ tunes, a bit of prog rock (ELP, King Crimson), some Jeff Beck, and even a little Radiohead for good measure. All In all, it’s a thrilling rollercoaster ride through the last 50-odd years of prominent musical Brits filtered through a decidedly modern big band lens. There’s so much going on in each track that it often becomes difficult to focus on any individual element, let alone the piece as a whole.
Add to this the seamlessness of the program (each track merges brilliantly with the next) and The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes I & II plays more like an even more out-there Girl Talk with its amalgamation of pop hits, direct and indirect lyrical quotes, and unrelenting beat. The obvious difference being the organic nature of Palermo’s arrangements versus Gregg Gillis’ equally impressive cut-and-paste jobs. This type of playful approach to otherwise well-known material helps lend even the most familiar songs here an exciting air of newness, with the original’s melody popping up now and then to make itself known amidst the myriad instrumentalists giving life to Palermo’s orchestral melding of pop/rock and jazz.
While there are tongue-in-cheek elements littered throughout — anyone who takes on two album’s worth of Zappa is bound to have a similar proclivity for the absurd — the music never once settles into complacency or goes for the low-hanging fruit. Instead, Palermo’s arrangements of something as esoteric as King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongue in Aspic, Part Two” or “21st Century Schizoid Man” are played ingeniously straightforward, paying the necessary respect to the originals while making them something wholly new and different. It’s a brilliant bit of musical reimagining that has long been the hallmark of progressive jazz figures (John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” anyone?) and proves well-suited to Palermo’s strengths as an arranger. “21st Century Schizoid Man”, in particular, comes charging out of the gates like an unhinged Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey Orchestra piece that’s been granted a glimpse of the future and a healthy supply of amphetamines.
By taking the familiar and turning it on its ear, jazz musicians are then able to (theoretically) reach a broader audience with a program based in the mainstream. Bookending the program with the Beatles’ “Good Morning, Good Morning” and “Good Night”, Palermo affords the set an easy point of entry and exit for listeners who may be hesitant to approach any form of modern big band music. In-between is a brilliant amalgamation of both the well-known (The Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man”, which crops up several times throughout, Radiohead’s “The Tourist”, and Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”) and the somewhat obscure (Blodwyn Pig’s “Send Your Son to Die” and Procol Harum’s “Wreck of the Hesperus”) that makes for an exciting listen. The music never lets up as one track tumbles headlong into the next.
The Rolling Stones’ “We Love You” features a swirling coda of the Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows”, literally pitting the two against one another on the same track. This then segues into an almost Latin shuffle that soon explodes into a cacophonous, violin-led rendition of “Eleanor Rigby” that alternates between an anxious urgency and nightmarish half-time segment during which violinist Katie Jacoby unleashes a furious solo, laying waste to all comers on the instrument in the process. Indeed, her presence is one of the defining factors of the album, again featured prominently on the decidedly Zappa-esque arrangement of “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, Part Two”.
Given the nature of his previous outings, it’s no surprise that much of The Great Un-American Songbook: Volumes I & II bears more than a slight resemblance to the music of Frank Zappa. Not to diminish any of Palermo’s originality — there’s plenty of that to go around — but rather to acknowledge him as the musical torchbearer for Zappa’s heavily-orchestrated approach to modern popular music. There are countless moments of intricately virtuosic instrumental interplay at work, the majority of which would’ve no doubt made not only Zappa but each of the songs’ composers smile. And while these moments are certainly impressive, they never distract or detract from the larger picture and are instead always in service of the arrangement, making them all the more outstanding.
The epic rendition of Nicky Hopkins’ “Edward, The Mad Shirt Grinder” (as performed by Quicksilver Messenger Service) offers up a particularly brilliant use of the big band format, allowing the band as a whole to shine while also giving plenty of space to the group’s many talented soloists. And of course there will be those who argue against the inclusion of a Quicksilver Messenger Service track (not to mention the even more incongruous appearance of Green Day’s “American Idiot” alongside The Nice’s version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story number “America”) as being contrary to the nature of the project, the argument itself becomes an exercise in futility.
Given Palermo’s undeniable gifts as an arranger means that the geographic origin of any of the tracks is of little consequence, as he quickly makes each his own. Here’s to hoping for Volumes III & IV sooner rather than later since The Great Un-American Songbook: Volumes I & II is a wickedly enjoyable listen from top to bottom.