Ed Palermo Enjoys a ‘Lousy Day’ with New Album


Ed Palermo incorporates large doses of humor in his big band’s music.

(Photo: Chris Drukker)

To paraphrase a rhetorical question once posed by Frank Zappa: Does humor belong in jazz? For arranger, composer, saxophonist and bandleader Ed Palermo, the answer to that query has long been “Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!”

The 18-piece Ed Palermo Big Band has been performing jazz arrangements of Zappa’s music regularly since 1994. But what started out as faithfully antic versions of the recently deceased composer’s complex, fiendishly clever music has expanded to reflect Palermo’s passion for Todd Rundgren, British psychedelia and progressive rock. This often entails head-spinning in-jokes, such as performing Traffic’s 1971 tune “The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys” over Zappa’s bass line for his composition “Chunga’s Revenge.”

“I decided a long time ago that I never wanted to do an album that takes itself seriously,” Palermo said during phone conversation from his home in New Jersey. “That would embarrass me. I generally want everything to be funny and self-deprecating.”

The big band’s discography includes the humorously titled Oh No! Not Jazz! (2014) and The Adventures Of Zodd Zundgren (2017). Both were released on the Cueiform label, and the latter album features songs written by Zappa, as well as compositions by Rundgren (including “Hello It’s Me” and “Broke Down And Busted”).

Matt Ingman—a bass trombonist in Palermo’s band—came up with the cover concept for the ensemble’s new album, A Lousy Day In Harlem (Sky Cat). It depicts Palermo sitting alone and despondent in front of 17 E. 126th Street, the brownstone apartment building where Art Kane assembled 57 jazz musicians on Aug. 12, 1958, for his famous photo A Great Day in Harlem. (Hugh Brennan shot Palermo’s update exactly 60 years later.)

On A Lousy Day, Palermo nods to both jazz history and his own. Half the album consists of delightful new arrangements of swinging tunes he composed between 1979 and ’81.

“I consider myself more of an arranger than a composer now,” Palermo said, “but I still love the things I wrote in the past.”

“Laurie Frink” was written for the trumpeter and jazz educator, who joined Palermo’s band in 1978 and died in 2013. “I can’t tell you enough how much I loved this woman,” he said.

The album concludes with “This Won’t Take Long,” an uptempo tune featuring a series of rhythmic shifts. “When we play it live, I always joke that it has to do with my sexual prowess,” Palermo quipped.

Much of the program on A Lousy Day consists of standards and standouts from the band’s 500-tune book. These include Duke Ellington’s “Brasilliance,” here mashed up with “Caravan”; Renee Rosnes’ “Gargoyles,” featuring dazzling solos by tenor saxophonist Ben Kono and trumpeter John Bailey; and a version of “Well, You Needn’t” that also envelops other Thelonious Monk compositions: “Evidence,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “I Mean You” and “In Walked Bud.”

The Ed Palermo Big Band performs monthly at the Iridium in Manhattan and regularly at The Falcon in Marlboro, New York. For appearances at the latter venue, Palermo often scripts elaborate thematic evenings. At one such event, vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock—a longtime Zappa vocalist who frequently works with Palermo—sang the line “I’m never getting married” (from Jimmy Webb’s “The Worst That Could Happen”) as Palermo stumbled onstage in prison stripes for an evening dedicated to his 34th wedding anniversary.

Most of Palermo’s humor, however, lies in the music’s richly textured citations and juxtapositions. The scores themselves are funny. “I wouldn’t call my thing a comedy show,” he said, “but it’s got a lot of humor in it. I often think that jazz takes itself way too seriously. Maybe that makes my thing stand out a little more.”

As with Zappa, the humor often emerges from the rapport among the band members. “When I rehearse with my band, the camaraderie is great and a lot of jokes go back and forth,” Palermo said. “I’m sure this happens at everyone’s rehearsals. But what I do—that they don’t—is think, ‘I’ll use that!’

“I’m in my mid-60s now,” he continued. “What do I have left—a few years, if I’m lucky? My thinking is, I’m going to have as much fun as possible, and I’m going to ram that fun down the throat of anyone who comes to my show. Bandleaders like Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue are the ones carrying the music forward, and I really give it up to them. Me, I’m just writing good music and having a good time. I want my tombstone to read, ‘It was fun while it lasted.’”

Palermo’s band, with Brock as a special guest, will perform an Americana-themed show at The Falcon on April 13. The band plays The Iridium on April. 22. For more info on Palermo, visit his website. DB

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