The Ed Palermo Big Band: The Great Un-American Songbook: Volumes I & II

Zappa-indebted big band leader Ed Palermo carries his singular vision across the pond, taking on the British Invasion and more in strikingly original fashion.

The Ed Palermo Big Band

The Great Un-American Songbook: Volumes I & II

Label: Cuneiform
US Release Date: 2017-02-24
UK Release Date: 2017-02-24

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.







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.


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.


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.


'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.


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".


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.


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.


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.


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".


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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