ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Frank Zappa was a true American original. Whatever you thought of the rock star's sometimes scatological lyrics in songs ranging from Don't Eat the Yellow Snow to Catholic Girls, his crazy and complex musical compositions have been acknowledged as a kind of genius. Before his death in 1993, he was commissioned to write for string quartets, orchestras and wind ensembles and was championed by everyone from composer and conductor Pierre Boulez to former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who asked Zappa to be the country's cultural advisor.

Since 1994, bandleader Ed Palermo has devoted himself to Zappa's music, arranging some 150 Zappa tunes, including this one, called Mojo.

(Soundbite of "Mojo")

SEABROOK: That's from the Ed Palermo Big Band's new CD, Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance on Cuneiform Records. Ed Palermo plus 14 band members join us here in NPR's Studio 4A. Welcome.

Mr. ED PALERMO (Bandleader): Thank you for inviting us.

SEABROOK: It's so great to have you here. You do all kinds of music, not just Frank Zappa, right?

Mr. PALERMO: That's right.

SEABROOK: But you are sort of - this is your second Zappa CD. Why is it so close to your heart?

Mr. PALERMO: Zappa was my first musical hero. The first I saw him live in 1969, it changed my life. I'd never heard anything so original. To this day, that music that they were doing, which was music from the album Uncle Meat, I've never heard anything like that come out of anyone else.

SEABROOK: It's so fantastic to hear people say musical genius, to hear you say that you hadn't heard anything like it and it changed your life. Because at the time he was really sort of treated as kind of a Weird Al Yankovic, wasn't he? I mean he was a little bit...

Mr. PALERMO: Yeah. You're right. The musicians knew at the time what an amazing talent he was. I think probably most people saw him as just this freak guy that looked real weird. Someone who looked like him couldn't possibly be a good musician. But behind that long hair and pretty ugly band members was some of the most - just fantastic musicians in his band, but with Zappa himself, a genius of a level that I still can't comprehend.

SEABROOK: Well, let's hear it. What are we going to hear?

Mr. PALERMO: We're going to hear a song called Rdnzl.

SEABROOK: Spelled?

Mr. PALERMO: R-D-N-Z-L.

SEABROOK: Great.

Mr. PALERMO: One two three, four five six.

(Soundbite of "Rdnzl")

SEABROOK: The Ed Palermo Big Band playing Rdnzl here in NPR's Studio 4A. And that sounded fantastic, but also fantastically difficult.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: I mean, the rhythm shifts every 10 bars. It sound like - I mean, halfway through they have to yell, help!

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: How do you play such complex music?

Mr. PALERMO: Well, for one thing, that's - the whole thing is Zappa's trademark. That's the thing that I found so fascinating by his music, was that all of a sudden he would lift his hand in the air, make some kind of signal. Also, the music totally shifts in tempo, in mood and just atmosphere. So I tried to really hold on to the that aspect of Zappa. So I just - like every song has its own personality, and it's own personality that I want to put into it. Because this is my interpretation of Zappa's music. My thing was never to replicate what Zappa had already recorded, because he already recorded it, you know?

SEABROOK: Yeah.

Mr. PALERMO: So the way I liken what I do is with the same way with like Gil Evans and Miles Davis did with Porgy and Bess. That's how I see what I do with Zappa.

SEABROOK: You know, Zappa also played with production a lot. The pans are all over the place.

Mr. PALERMO: Yeah.

SEABROOK: Your stereo is doing things it never did before. Do you all play with that at all, or do you try and reproduce it in the arrangement at all?

Mr. PALERMO: Oh, in the arrangement? Yeah, in a way. A lot of times there will be like a sweep throughout the band that goes from left to right as far as the instrumentation. I got that from Zappa - not only Zappa, but Tchaikovsky. He arranged a lot of stuff that was real quick interplay between the instruments, the different instruments.

SEABROOK: Can you play an example of that? I mean, I know you haven't prepared it, but...

Mr. PALERMO: Oh my lord. Probably not, because I was lying about the whole thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Oh, musicians. You can never trust them. Let me see. Guys, is there an example of that?

Unidentified Man #1 (Ed Palermo Big Band Member): Andy. Andy's got the thing where it builds from, you know, the 5/8 and 11/16, and then - or maybe it's Akidna(ph) that does the same thing.

Mr. PALERMO: He's right. Akidna. Excellent idea. The 5/8 section of - 5/16 section of Akidna.

Unidentified Man #2 (Ed Palermo Big Band Member): Stuff we can't play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: Stuff we never got right ever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PALERMO: Yeah. Get out the song that we completely screwed up last night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Let's hear it.

Mr. PALERMO: Okay. In a feeble attempt to actually answer your question, we're going to do a little snippet of Zappa classic called Akidna's Arf(ph).

SEABROOK: And just to repeat, describe for us - what will this show?

Mr. PALERMO: Oh, this is going to describe the interplay. You'll the trombones play something and then it will be answered by the saxophones and the trumpets - very Tchaikovsky-esque.

SEABROOK: But also Zappa.

Mr. PALERMO: Yes. One, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of "Akidna's Arf")

SEABROOK: That was crazy!

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: And this - did you guys really mess this up last night at your show?

Mr. PALERMO: Yeah, we had a slight train wreck in this one. In fact, I won't tell - someone made a little clam on this particular - but we'll just use that as an example of the interplay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #3 (Ed Palermo Big Band Member): Thanks, Ed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Word has it you're working up charts for the music of James Brown. Is this true?

Mr. PALERMO: Yeah. Actually, we did that week, or two weeks ago.

SEABROOK: Is that the next CD we get from Ed Palermo Big Band?

Mr. PALERMO: No, I don't think so. I think - we do have other projects. I have - we do the music of Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, the blues stuff. Also, I've done the music of Edgar Winter, because of lot of people don't realize that Edgar Winter has a very, very deep jazz side to him, so we do that. We just do sporadic concerts around New York City, just doing whatever concept I feel like doing.

SEABROOK: That must be pretty wild. I mean, you guys alone would fill up a bar in Manhattan.

Mr. PALERMO: Yeah, well, we're pretty used to outnumbering the audience, you know, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: And I guess you can't really swing-dance to this stuff, at least not Akidna.

Mr. PALERMO: Not Akidna, no. There's no dancing going on in Akidna. But, yeah...

SEABROOK: Great. Well, we have time for one more tune. But before you play us out, I'd like to thank you all so much for coming to NPR Studio 4A, and Ed Palermo, thank you.

Mr. PALERMO: Thank you.

SEABROOK: And what are you going to leave us with here?

Mr. PALERMO: Let me see. We're going to do a song from my favorite - one of my favorite Zappa albums, Lumpy Gravy.

SEABROOK: Lumpy Gravy.

Mr. PALERMO: This is the Theme from Lumpy Gravy. And I just want to say before we go, very, very important. My band. My rhythm section. Bob Quaranta on piano, Ted Kooshian on (unintelligible), Ray Marchica on the drums and Paul Adamy on bass. Bass trombone player Matt Ingman, lead trombone Charlie Gordon, Alan Furber(ph) on second trombone. Lead trumpet, Ronnie Buttacavoli, second trumpet John Hines. On tenor saxophone, Bill Straub. Next to him we have Phil Chester on piccolo and soprano and alto saxophone. Lead alto saxophone, Cliff Lion(ph), Dave Riconberg(ph) on tenor saxophone, and Barbara Cifelli on the bari sax.

SEABROOK: And Ed Palermo Big Band taking us out with Lumpy Gravy.

(Soundbite of "Theme from Lumpy Gravy")

SEABROOK: Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance is the name of the Ed Palermo Big Band's new CD on Cuneiform Records. Listen to more of the band's session in NPR's Studio 4A on our Web site, including Palermo's mash-up of Zappa's G-Spot Tornado with Babatunde Olatunji's Jingo and Duke Ellington's Caravan. That's at npr.org/music.

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