The Ed Palermo Big Band – A Lousy Day in Harlem
(Sky Cat Records, SC181202. CD Review by Jane Mann)
A Lousy Day in Harlem is the new CD from The Ed Palermo Big Band, the New York band famous for inventive arrangements of rock songs by band leader, composer and alto saxophonist Ed Palermo. The surprise here is that this is an actual jazz album which includes covers of jazz classics alongside jazz compositions by Palermo. He writes:
“The thing about this record is, I wanted it to be jazzier. We play a lot of jazz in my band, but I’ve been doing Zappa and British Invasion stuff for years and I’ve had these other types of music in my book, jazz tunes that had been close to my heart for decades. I finally felt ready to record these tunes – tunes I’d composed, and tunes I’d arranged. It felt like the right time to show the world another side of the band.”
The title is of course a reference to Art Kane’s iconic photograph from 1958, A Great Day in Harlem, which featured 57 famous jazz musicians gathered on the steps of a brownstone building. The front and back covers of this album are photographs of Palermo sitting alone, disconsolately, in front of the same building. The sleeve notes contain some jokes, a useful list of which band members solo on which track, and then a more serious dedication: “…to all the men, women and children that our 45th president separated at the border. I sincerely hope all of you find each other when saner, more moral leadership takes hold of this country.”
This mixture of wit, humour, compassion and attention to detail within the sleeve notes gives a hint of Palermo’s musical approach too. His compositions are dense, crammed with invention, but also allow plenty of space for individuals to shine. The excellent band breeze through the demanding scores and produce a beautiful rich sound. The arrangements are lush and stuffed full of detail, good humoured and action-packed – in fact, I had to keep stopping the record between tracks for a breather.
The choice of harmonies, the changing time signatures and the juxtaposition of certain instruments means that a few of the pieces are infused with a Frank Zappa-like sensibility. This is not surprising given that Palermo has arranged huge amounts of Zappa music over the years. His arrangement on this CD of an Egberto Gismonti piece from 1981 called Sanfona is inspired by the spirit of Zappa, and works brilliantly – the piece jumps from movement to movement seamlessly, with a delightful melody over everything by Phil Chester on soprano sax.
There is an authentic Latin American feel to many of the pieces too. Palermo played for several years with Tito Puente, and with Eddie Palmieri and Celia Cruz so he is steeped in that musical culture. He gives us a reading of Brasilliance from Ellington’s 1968 Latin American Suite with an exhilarating piano and drums introduction, a diversion into Caravan, and then a return to the main theme, powered along throughout by Bob Quaranta’s magnificent montuno-style piano. Quaranta performed with Mongo Santamaria for a decade and has recorded with Ray Barretto and Willie Colon so he is also a giant in this genre.
There are two other splendid covers. First is Thelonius Monk’s Well You Needn’t, into which Palermo crams bits of In Walked Bud, and I’m sure many more references, all in a thrilling three minutes.
The next track starts with the duelling banjos theme from the film Deliverance played on tenor saxes before morphing into a roller-coaster Giant Steps by John Coltrane, after which you may need a lie down.
Palermo’s own compositions stand up well in this illustrious company. He loves a good melody, and there are plenty of delicious tunes. One of my favourites is Affinity, a lovely swinging waltz with lilting piano and charming soprano sax from Cliff Lyons. Another is a gorgeous number called The One With The Balloon, which is like an instrumental version of a lost song from a Disney film. It features a wonderful trombone part for Charley Gordon, a reference to Pop Goes The Weasel and a tap dance solo.
There are many delights in listening to The Ed Palermo Big Band – the expert musicianship, the lovely tunes, the energy, but also the joy of hearing unexpected snatches of other tunes which Palermo can’t resist slipping in. As he says: “Nothing is sacred and everything is sacred. It’s all done with love.”
The Ed Palermo Big Band
Reeds: Cliff Lyons – alto sax, clarinet, soprano sax on ‘Affinity’; Phil Chester – alto sax, soprano sax, flute, piccolo; Bill Straub – tenor sax, clarinet, flute; Ben Kono – tenor sax, flute, oboe; Barbara Cifelli – baritone sax, bass clarinet, Eb clarinet; Ed Palermo – alto sax
Trumpets: Ronnie Buttacavoli (lead); John Bailey; Steve Jankowski
Trombones: Charley Gordon (lead); Mike Boschen; Matt Ingman (bass trombone)
Drums: Ray Marchica
Electric Bass: Paul Adamy
Piano: Bob Quaranta
Keyboard: Ted Kooshian
All Arrangements: Ed Palermo
- Laurie Frink (Ed Palermo)
- Affinity (Ed Palermo, David Boruff)
- Brasilliance (Duke Ellington)
- Sanfona (Egberto Gismonti)
- Like Lee Morgan (Ed Palermo)
- The One with the Balloon (Ed Palermo)
- Minority (Gigi Gryce)
- The Cowboy Song (Ed Palermo)
- Well You Needn’t (Thelonius Monk)
- Giant Steps (John Coltrane)
- Next Year (David Leone)
- Gargoyles (Renee Rosnes, Walt Weiskopf)
- This Won’t Take Long (Ed Palermo)