Jazzy, outrageous, unpredictable Big Band music featuring everything from two ‘Mr. Eds’ to Frank Zappa….


With Special Guest: Napoleon Murphy Brock


The conversation among the fans waiting in the stairwell at The Iridium was heavily Zappa-oriented, and with good reason. For one thing, Ed Palermo has been preserving the musical legacy of the colorful founder of The Mothers of Invention by taking Frank Zappa’s music and rendering it in fine Big Band form – not that Zappa himself didn’t tread those very waters. Albums like Frank’s Grand Wazoo and Waka Jawaka certainly made use of ample horn sections along with inventive guitar work and elements of the avant garde. What Palermo manages to do, though, is to discover big ambitious arrangements even in earlier, sparser (if there is such a thing as ‘sparser’ in Zappa’s catalog) selections. On top of that, Ed is a child of the classic rock era and often surprises his audience with Big Band rave-ups featuring the music of The Beatles, Todd Rundgren, Black Sabbath, Steely Dan, Sondheim and other surprises – on this occasion the show opened with the theme from Mr. Ed. Well, why not?


Zappa famously asked, “does Humor belong in music?’ full-knowing that for himself at least, the answer was a resounding “yes.” Palermo follows suit, injecting healthy doses of visual humor as well as pure musical whimsy (the aforementioned “Mr. Ed” theme) into the show. Medleys featuring Western themes produce cowboy hats for the principal players and even a couple of toy horses. Still, when it comes down to the notes, Ed is all business – and so is the sixteen piece band meticulously following his direction.


The stage at The Iridium is crowded with musicians from edge to edge. The drummer is almost invisible behind ten horns, a bass player, a violinist, guitarist, and two keyboard players – one electric and one acoustic. The sound is precise, crackling with energy, and definitely swings (although Ed’s strong affinity for rock & roll allows the band to rock when necessary).


The soloists wail, blowing hot jazzy phrases through the room (we’ll name the guilty parties later), Bruce McDaniel on guitar provides rhythm and exacting, precise melodic runs while sharing soaring solos with Katie Jacoby’s violin. Supporting much of the intricate playing are two keyboards: Ted Kooshian on the synth, providing head-spinning passages, sometimes duplicating the marimba and vibes originally performed so often by Ruth Underwood in Frank’s classic 70s line-ups, and Bob Quaranta on the acoustic piano, putting out textured jazzy chords and wonderfully played melody lines. Behind it all, are the astounding and ornamental bass phrases played to perfection by Paul Adamy, and the stunning drum parts designed by Zappa (who was a percussionist before he was a guitarist) calculated to drive just about any drummer crazy – Ray Marchia is more than up to the task – maybe just crazy enough…  Put it all together and you have some amazing sounds coming off of that cramped stage, all under the direction of Ed Palermo, who’s obviously having a ball.


The amazingly talented folks sitting at stage right doing such stellar ensemble playing and contributing sizzling solo spots were: Jordan Pettay-alto sax and clarinet, Phil Chester-alto sax, soprano sax, flute, piccolo, Bill Straub – tenor sax and clarinet, Ben Kono-tenor sax and flute, Barbara “How Does She Even Lift That Thing” Cifelli - baritone sax, Ronnie Buttacavoli-lead trumpet, John Bailey-2nd trumpet, Charley Gordon-lead trombone, Michael Boschen-trombone, and Matt Ingman-bass trombone. This was Friday night’s line up – the following night also featured Drew Vandewinckel on tenor sax and clarinet in place of Bill Straub.


There’s probably just one man that could sing the words, “I ate a hot dog – it tasted real good,” and make it an iconic moment, and that man is the legendary Napoleon Murphy Brock, Ed’s special guest for the night. Brock is an electric personality, full of energy and good humor, and his vocal skills and showmanship still bring Zappa’s music to life as effectively as when he was part of that classic ‘Live at The Roxy’ line-up. When not singing (and dancing), Brock grabs a horn and executes the sax parts on “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” to perfection. Of course, “Montana” was a tour de force for all, “Apostrophe” was a surprising and raucous instrumental jam, and “Stinkfoot” was a welcome and familiar rendition. A first for Brock was the Zappa/ Beefheart “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming,” which was sandwiched between “Theme From The Magnificent Seven” and “Montana,” all performed with many band members in Western headgear.


The always-interesting set-list (which changes between shows and on alternate nights) consisted of fascinating mash-ups and a sampling of non-Zappa material from Procol Harum to Palermo himself (by all means, try Ed’s recent One Child Left Behind CD to sample just such a mix). Where else can you hear “Mr. Ed,” Springsteen’s “Candy’s Room” followed by Cream’s “White Room,” “Nights in White Satin,” “Pretzel Logic,” “Purple Rain,” an outrageous version of Rundgren’s “Emperor of The Highway,” and a generous sampling of Frank Zappa’s best?

Well, at The Iridium Jazz Club when The Ed Palermo Big Band is playing – that’s where. And that’s just a random sampling of what was played. Impeccable Big Band Jazz with a twist of Zappa and classic rock – it works for me.


-words and images: Bert Saraco