There’s often a note of humor in the titles and artwork of arranger/saxophonist/composer Ed Palermo’s recordings (The Great Un-American Songbook featured several British Invasion-era tunes), and this one is no exception: The cover of A Lousy Day in Harlem plays off of the classic 1958 Art Kane photograph of 57 jazz musicians gathered in front of a Harlem brownstone, with Palermo in front of the same building, alone and forlorn.
But that’s where the funny stuff ends; when Palermo gets down to arranging music, he’s dead serious. Unlike previous efforts from him that focused largely on a single composer (more often than not Frank Zappa), this program roams widely. A couple of the numbers—Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” and Gigi Gryce’s “Minority”—come from musicians who appeared in that 1958 photo; the rest are either Palermo originals or interpretations of pieces both contemporary (Renee Rosnes) and classic (Ellington). Throughout, there’s a uniformity in the airtight arrangements and the seamlessly executed playing. Twenty-first century big-band music doesn’t get more exciting and impressive than this.
Among the pieces from outside sources, the Egberto Gismonti tune “Sanfona” is a particular highlight, gliding easily between divergent tempos; Phil Chester’s sweet and sassy soprano saxophone solo is punctuated by unexpected bursts from the other horn players. The originals show that Palermo has learned well from the masters. Opener “Laurie Frink,” dedicated to the late trumpeter, gets things off to a swinging start, while “Like Lee Morgan” gives one of the band’s current trumpeters, John Bailey, an opportunity not to mimic Morgan but to honor him in his own way. Two tenor saxists, Bill Straub and Ben Kono, nod similarly to Trane in an uptempo, electrifying “Giant Steps.” Ain’t nothing lousy at all about this one.
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