His tongue may be in his cheek, but Palermo still creates top-class big band impressions of a raft of seminal – and occasionally obscure – tracks from early British rock bands like Cream, Traffic and The Stones. Thankfully, Radiohead gets in there too.

Label: Cuneiform Records
Time: 21 tracks / 1 hour, 53 mins.

If you were raised on music from the ‘60s, then rock was too serious to mess with and big band music was something to move on from, right? Well it was until this lot came along.

It only took half a listen to their version of Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” to get excited – very excited – by what could be in this collection. And I have not been disappointed.

There are too many tracks to cover everything, but here are some pointers.

Several tracks seem to be built on the piano and feature remarkably similar sounding intros to the originals. Jethro Tull’s “Beggar’s Farm” is one, but –expanded to over six minutes – it takes its big band role seriously and features some superb sax interplay (not to mention some very healthy bass work underneath).

Other songs are built for the jazz treatment: two key King Crimson works are placed in a row, moving from “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Pt. Two” – as plain and simple a riff as they ever created – straight onto (what else?) “21st Century Schizoid Man,” which they can also improvise from.

I say, “What else?” but there are some unpredictable track selections here. The sole ELP piece is “Bitches Crystal,” rarely considered to be a major part of their repertoire, when something like the power of “Karn Evil 9” might have given them more to play with. Similarly, “Diamond Dust” is not the first Jeff Beck I would expect, but it’s eminently suitable for the big band treatment. Piano lines and brass swells play around each other, but you can still trace the guitarist through it.

The same goes for  “Open Up Said the World at the Door,” a particularly rare The Move track, but one that erstwhile Zappa sax man Palermo makes really swing, like it was something from earlier in the last century.
But these random choices are mainly because Palermo has ransacked his own collection and made some personal selections. This gives us five Beatles tracks (more if you count the wonderful piece of “Tomorrow Never Knows” inserted into the Stones’ “We Love You”). Volume One begins with their “Good Morning, Good Morning” and the second ends (like The White Album) with “Good NIght”. We see what you did there, Ed. The Stones, Procol Harum and Cream music also features, along with some Blodwyn Pig and Nicky Hopkins (who played keys for better known artists, particularly the Stones).

Partly it works because there is a fine band at the heart of it, who can replicate the feel of the original – so Traffic’s “Low Spark” again starts with a very authentic piano, and the vocals reflect Stevie Winwood’s tones very well. But before three minutes has passed, the big band has come in with its own very different instrumental jam, leading to trumpet and sax taking turns to solo over the piano riff. Then it’s back to the basic band for an authentic fade-out.

It’s great to find a beautifully emotional version of Radiohead’s “The Tourist” in there, proving that good music doesn’t die when a decade (or three) changes. The brass is carefully placed, and just manages not to swamp the space that is so integral to the song.

For me, “America / American Idiot” disappoints, not because an America band intrudes (after all, the title permits that), but if there was one track built for big band improvisation, surely it was Keith Emerson’s take on “America”? But mixing “American Idiot” into it, while cleverly inserted, breaks it up and the whole track is unduly short.

Humour is never far away and there are some (well done) spoof Liverpudlian accents adding comments, but thankfully mainly just bookending each disc.

Otherwise, there is very little to fault. The selections virtually all work really well and evoke the ‘sixties from the inside; the musicianship is excellent and many of the arrangements are thoughtful and clever.

These are the first volumes of The Great UnAmerican Songbook, so hopefully there are more interpretations on the way. That’s great news, because this set brilliantly balances the feel of the original songs and the integrity of big band jazz.

Derek Walker