The Ed Palermo Big Band – The Great Un-American Songbook: Volumes I & II [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform, Rune 435/436 (2-CDs) 58:49, 54:48 [2/24/17] *****:

Who can mix prog-rock, British pop music, Miles Davis, Jeff Beck and West Side Story? It could only be the one and only Ed Palermo.

(Ed Palermo – leader, conductor, arranger, alto saxophone; Barbara Cifelli – baritone saxophone, Eb mutant clarinet; Matt Ingman – bass trombone; Charley Gordon – lead trombone; Ronnie Buttacavoli – lead trumpet; Katie Jacoby – electric violin; John Bailey, Steve Jankowski – trumpet; Clifford Lyons – lead alto saxophone, clarinet; Phil Chester – second alto saxophone, flute piccolo, soprano saxophone; Bill Straub – lead tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet; Ben Kono – second tenor saxophone, flute, oboe; Michael Boschen – trombone; Ray Marchica – drums; Paul Adamy – electric bass; Bob Quaranta – acoustic piano; Ted Kooshian – electric keyboards; Bruce McDaniel – guitar, vocals, arranger (track 7, CD 1), producer, mixing, mastering; Mick Starkey, Napoleon Murphy Brock – guest vocals)

Alto saxophonist Ed Palermo and the Ed Palermo Big Band are probably most famous for several Frank Zappa tributes. On Palermo’s latest outing he takes a stab at mostly British rock and pop music. The double-disc The Great Un-American Songbook: Volumes I & II has close to two hours of prime UK material (think Cream, the Beatles, King Crimson, Jethro Tull and more) which is stitched together to form a cohesive musical and conceptual whole. Like the best progressive rock, there are recurring characters and a loose narrative. Palermo does a lot more than that, though. He crafts swinging large ensemble jazz interpretations of both well-known and obscure tracks into something which is tinted with nostalgia; but also, rearranges this music into instrumental (and a few vocal) renditions which breathe new life into these older songs.

On CD 1, listeners are introduced to ersatz English sad sack Mick Starkey (the less celebrated cousin of Richard Starkey – AKA Beatles drummer Ringo Starr). In between tunes, Starkey laments his lack of groupies, money and fame, while an unnamed God-like persona comments on Starkey’s complaints with sly asides which initiate numbers such as the Move’s “Open Up Said the World at the Door” and the Rolling Stones’ “We Love You.” One major highpoint of the first disc is a medley which includes a reworking of “We Love You” which segues into an upbeat, instrumental jazz version of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” highlighted by an exhilarating solo from electric violinist Katie Jacoby (who suggests early Jean-Luc Ponty). “Eleanor Rigby” in turn smoothly transitions into a wonderful translation of Jeff Beck’s “Definitely Maybe.” Whereas Beck’s original (found on the self-titled 1972 Jeff Beck Group LP) was a quartet arrangement featuring Beck’s electric guitar at the forefront, Palermo alters “Definitely Maybe” into a jazz piece centered on woodwinds and horns, and in the process, gives fresh melodic vivacity to what was a somewhat lackluster tune. And that’s just the first half of CD 1. The Ed Palermo Big Band then redoes two King Crimson cuts, “Larks’ Tongue in Aspic, Part Two” and “21st Century Schizoid Man.” The results are phenomenal. King Crimson’s music often had a full sound which lent itself to a wider musical tone, thus Palermo aptly showcases a broader musical range on these two King Crimson tracks. Jacoby stars again on electric violin, Bruce McDaniel handles the heavy riffs on electric guitar, and there is erstwhile ensemble interplay among the reeds, horns, rhythm section and piano. During “21st Century Schizoid Man” (which has brief vocals) the weighty riffs are done by the massed horns rather than guitar, which deftly provide a slightly different musical framework. Blues-rock (with a hefty dose of McDaniel’s electric guitar) is the steady underpinning for a reeling instrumental of Blodwyn Pig’s anti-war diatribe, “Send Your Son to Die” (Palermo also includes an uncredited snippet from the Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man”). CD 1 closes with an extended adaptation of San Francisco band Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “Edward, the Mad Shirt Grinder,” one of the rare instances where Palermo steps outside the UK for inspiration.

CD 2 inexplicably opens with Leonard Bernstein’s “America,” from West Side Story. But the British connection is Palermo’s variant was fostered via the version by English prog-rock group the Nice (which included keyboardist Keith Emerson, who later formed Emerson, Lake and Palmer). In keeping with the Broadway roots, Palermo humorously slips in a few lines from the title track of Green Day’s punk album-turned-musical, American Idiot. “America/American Idiot” moves expertly into Jethro Tull’s “Beggar’s Farm,” with ample solo room for sax, flute, vocals, flute and trumpet. More UK prog-rock supplies CD 2’s medley centerpiece. The first part of the medley contains a compelling run through ELP’s “Bitches Crystal,” which has some accomplished sax and trombone soloing, and wisely dispenses with Greg Lake’s enigmatic lyrics. Then the Ed Palermo Big Band switches gears a bit with a melodic shift to Procol Harum’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” based on the narrative poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Palermo sagely includes the seafaring text. Other memorable moments on CD 2 include an appropriately jazz-fueled excursion through Jeff Beck’s “Diamond Dust,” a jazz-fusion piece from Beck’s 1975 LP Blow by Blow; an optimistic foray through Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” (which happily includes Steve Winwood’s lyrics); and a reflective rendering of Radiohead’s “The Tourist,” which segues into a medley inside a medley, where Palermo reveals the common ground among the Beatles’ “Don’t Bother Me” and Miles Davis’ “Nardis.” Certainly, only Palermo would find connections between two disparate tunes from the worlds of British pop and American jazz. But it works without any overt effort, since Palermo turns “Don’t Bother Me” into a jazz instrumental and demonstrates how straightforwardly he can veer from the Fab Four to Davis, and then back again to the Beatles (the 7:12 two-part combination concludes with a pop-inclined reprise of the Lennon/McCartney song, complete with lyrics). And how better to wind-up an English-leaning collection then more Beatles? No surprise the Ed Palermo Big Band finish with an instrumental, jazz-fusion take of “I Wanna Be Your Man” (heightened by Jacoby’s electric violin and McDaniel’s guitar), and the fitting, melancholy “Good Night” (ostensibly sung by Mick Starkey). And you won’t want to miss the secret bonus track, where a faux-Frank Sinatra crooner sings “Her Majesty,” with comical commentary during the song. Beatles fans might recall the Beatles included the same song as a hidden ending to their 1969 LP, Abbey Road. The Great Un-American Songbook: Volumes I & II may seem like a gimmick to some, but there is undeniable depth as well as requisite wit which permeates Palermo’s double-album package. These are not throwaway arrangements, and there is plenty of musical virtuosity. Remember what Zappa once said: “Jazz isn’t dead. It just smells funny.” In Palermo’s case, he proves jazz is alive and well, and can sound funny and serious at the same time.


CD 1: 
Good Morning, Good Morning; Open Up Said the World at the Door
We Love You
Eleanor Rigby
Definitely Maybe
As You Said; Larks’ Tongue in Aspic, Part Two
21st Century Schizoid Man
Send Your Son to Die
Edward, the Mad Shirt Grinder

CD 2: 
America/American Idiot
Beggar’s Farm
Bitches Crystal
Wreck of the Hesperus
Diamond Dust
The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
The Tourist
Don’t Bother Me/Nardis/Don’t Bother Me (reprise)
I Wanna Be Your Man
Good Night

—Doug Simpson