Since the 1940s, when big bands were last big business, few of them have had any longevity. The orchestras of global stars like Count Basie, Duke Ellington or Glen Miller continued to perform (and in those cases still exist today, long after the deaths of their founders), but today they mostly exist as educational or recreational outfits. There simply isn’t an adequate market for the big band sound to support many such large agglomerations of highly trained musicians through record sales or concert tickets. A relatively unknown saxophonist from New York, Ed Palermo has somehow managed to buck this trend for more than forty years, leading jazz bands of at least above-average size through a variety of incarnations, but all under the same name. For much of that time he has been best known as an arranger and interpreter of the music of Frank Zappa, and since 2006 he’s been releasing recordings through Cuneiform Records, which is how I came to hear of him (although this one is on Sky Cat Records).
This may sound like a bit of a gimmick, but The Ed Palermo Big Band is very much more than a Zappa tribute act. For one thing, anyone who can do justice to a Zappa composition is a damned serious musician, but Palermo’s charts are a masterclass in arranging, and he and his band are so practised at performing them that they strike the ear with an almost casual ease. As well as playing his own music at times (I’m a little hazy on the precise history of Palermo’s activities), he’s also dug into other oeuvres that one might not expect to find represented in a big band’s book, such as the songs of Todd Rundgren. With I’ve Got News For You he takes on the compositions of Edgar Winter, and taking a cue from the titles of his albums The Great Un-American Songbook, Volumes 1 and 2, he does seem to be redefining what the fabled American songbook might actually be, or deserve to have in it. Personally I didn’t know Winter’s music at all before I heard this album, so I guess it’s having the desired effect. Not that he’s remotely obscure, with a pretty storied and successful recording career behind him, commencing in 1970.
Winter is a genre-bender, writing material that straddles rock, jazz, blues and pop, which clearly makes him a good fit for Palermo, but he’s also, in my opinion, very much in the tradition of the American songbook—his songs are sophisticated, urbane, witty, and elegantly constructed. Taken up by an outfit like Palermo’s, which swings deep, and blows hard, but which also understands (like Zappa) the profound atavistic joy of low-brow guitar music, you’d think the material had been written specifically for this band. What these songs, with their high-energy arrangements, and their brilliant, soulful vocal performances add up to is one of the best jazz albums I’ve heard in a while—and one of the best rock albums. And one of the best rhythm and blues albums. In fact this is just (un)American music, which highlights the commonalities of a whole raft of related genres, and the often purely conventional nature of the distinctions between them. It’s rare for really serious, technically exacting and nuanced music like this to be so wholly entertaining, so exciting to hear, so pop. Every Palermo cut I’ve heard has been thrilling, and I’ve Got News For You is no exception.