If you had the chops to rearrange the Move’s Open Up Said the World at the Door as blustery, quasi big band jazz, would you? Ed Palermo did. That he would know the song at all is impressive. It’s not even the best track on the legendary British band’s worst album. But it’s a twistedly delicious treat, part boogie blues and part Stravinsky. What does the Ed Palermo Big Band’s version sound like?
Bob Quaranta plays a very subtly altered version of Jeff Lynne’s introductory piano hook and then the band makes a scampering, brassy swing shuffle out of it, trumpeter Ronnie Buttacavoli true to the spirit of Lynne’s unhinged road-to-nowhere guitar solo on the original. It perfectly capsulizes the appeal of Palermo’s latest album, a 21 (twenty-one) track monstrosity titled The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2 – streaming at Cuneiform Records – which does pretty much the same thing with a bunch of reinvented 60s and 70s psychedelic and art-rock songs, most of them on the obscure side. The band are airing them out this May 8 at 8:30 PM at Iridium; cover is $25, which is cheap for this midtown tourist trap.
The Beatles are represented by five tracks. The best and funniest is Eleanor Rigby, which quotes back and forth from a famous and very aptly chosen classical piece. Heavy low brass beefs up Good Morning, while Katie Jacoby’s vioiln adds biting blues rusticity to an otherwise droll, Esquivel-esque chart for a diptych of Don’t Bother Me and I Wanna Be Your Man, with detours into Miles Davis and then a big roadhouse-blues break. And extra brass and reeds add a Penny Lane brightness to the album’s benedictory concluding cut, Goodnight, which has an ending way too hilarious to give away.
The rest of the songs are much lesser-known but just about as amusing. Obviously, it helps if you know the source material. The lone Stones cut here is We Love You, redone to the point of unrecognizability as a mighty, red-neon Vegas noir theme, with a sly dig at Nicky Hopkins and a LMAO Beatles quote. Speaking of Hopkins, the intro to the almost fourteen-minute take of Edward, the Mad Shirt Grinder – a Quicksilver Messenger Service epic – will leave you in stitches.
Most of the songs segue into each other. Jacoby’s plaintive lines take centerstage again in Jeff Beck’s Definitely Maybe, leading up to a more ebulliently sailing clarinet solo and then back, in the process finding the song’s moody inner soul. Another Beck number, Diamond Dust benefits from the 15-piece band’s balmiest chart here and a starlit Quaranta piano solo.
King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two is the album’s second-most epic track, with a stark yet symphonic sweep that’s arguably better than the original, punctuated by a moody Bill Straub tenor sax solo over Bruce McDaniel’s clustering guitar. Palermo and crew also improve on another King Crimson tune, 21st Century Schizoid Man, transforming sludgy mathrock into jaunty swing, lit up by a long Clifford Lyons alto sax solo and Paul Adamy’s pirouetting bass.
Send Your Son to Die, by Jethro Tull predecessors Blodwyn Pig, evokes Tower of Power at their heftiest. Likewise, Tull’s Beggar’s Farm gets redone as a latin number and a vehicle for a long flute solo. Ted Kooshian’s tiptoeing baroque organ adds an element of cynical fun to America, by Keith Emerson’s original band the Nice – although the quote from that dorky 90s band at the end should have been left on the cutting room floor. There’s also an Emerson, Lake and Palmer number here, Bitches Crystal, muting that band’s bombast in favor of swing and an unexpected slink punctuated by a Barbara Cifelli baritone sax solo.
That Palermo would cover Procol Harum’s toweringly elegaic Wreck of the Hesperus rather than, say, Whiter Shade of Pale, speaks to the depth and counterintuitivity of this album: the song itself hews very close to the original. Similarly but on a completely different tip, Fire, the novelty hit by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, is funniest for its over-the-top vocals
The lone current-day (sort of) band included here is Radiohead. Palermo’s take of The Tourist takes the song back in time thirty years, productionwise and transforms it into a lush haunter, fortuitously without mimicking Thom Yorke’s whine.
There are also a couple of duds here. Cream’s As You Said comes across as Spyro Gyra on steroids, and the short version of Traffic’s The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys sounds like a Bleecker Street cover band that wandered into Winter Jazzfest. Still, for a grand total of 21 tracks, the band’s batting average is more than 900. A characteristically robust, joyously entertaining accomplishment for the group, which also includes trombonists Matt Ingman, Michael Boschen and Charley Gordon, trumpeter John Bailey, sax players Phil Chester and Ben Kono,