STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Last year, Sellersville Theater audience members were treated to the incredible sounds of the Ed Palermo Big Band. It’s not often that Sellersville Theater hosts a 17-member band. And to my knowledge this is the only big band that exists whose repertoire consists primarily of the music of Frank Zappa, the iconic composer, guitarist and bandleader. I was absolutely stunned by their performance.
I would’ve found it hard to believe that their show could be improved upon. But now the band will be joined by the inimitable Napoleon Murphy Brock. Brock is no stranger to Sellersville Theater either; he performed there with The GrandMothers of Invention, a Frank Zappa tribute band which includes Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention alumni. And that, too was a memorable experience, in large part due to Brock’s phenomenal stage persona.
Brock is best known for his work with Zappa in the 1970s, which includes performances on the albums “Apostrophe” (1974), “Roxy & Elsewhere” (1974), “One Size Fits All” (1975) and “Bongo Fury” (1975). He is much more than a vocalist, saxophonist and flutist; he is a complete showman — which is why Zappa wanted Brock to join his band. (See the companion story “This Is What Frank Zappa Heard”).
Brock and Palermo first met at the Zappanale Festival in Bad Doberan, Germany “way back in the early 2000s,” said Brock, in a phone interview from Florida shortly after returning from this year’s Zappanale Festival. “(Ed) was playing there with his band and I was playing there with Project/Object [another Zappa tribute band].”
Brock and Palermo were then given the opportunity to play together.
“It was just unbelievable,” said Brock. “All my life, my only other dream was to play with a band or to sing with a band like Stan Kenton or Gil Evans or Count Basie or Duke Ellington. (This) was a dream come true for me because Ed Palermo was playing Zappa music big band–style.”
Brock, who celebrated his 70th birthday in June, performs with the energy and enthusiasm of a man half his age. He commands the stage when he performs.
“I come from theater,” he explained. “I used to work with the San Jose Light Opera company. (Zappa) knew that I knew that music was not only a show but it’s also theater, which involves choreography, which involves animation, where you’re so animated during your performance (so) the people get it. They understand what the song is all about and how it feels.”
As enthusiastic as Brock is in all his performances, he emphasized how special it is when he gets to perform with Palermo.
“It doesn’t get any better. Ed Palermo is so brilliant… It’s like an extension of everything that was composed by Frank, but extended so you can hear all the sounds and all the nuances. Rather than just having to imagine them listening to a bass, guitar, drums and maybe one saxophone or something like that, everything is blown way up, blown into the total sound you imagine. You don’t have to imagine it anymore because Ed Palermo creates it with all these brilliant musicians and all these brilliant instruments and his imagination.”
Brock illustrated an example of how meaningful it is to him to be able to perform with Palermo.
“Ed Palermo is the only client that I work for (where) I actually will pay my own airfare to come and play with (him). Can you imagine that? What I do is I save up my SkyMiles… (for) when Ed wants me to perform with him. When we play for someone else, of course, they pay the airfare because they’re the client. Those SkyMiles are valuable; it takes a long time to accumulate them and they have value but so does me performing, any time I can, with the Ed Palermo Big Band and Ed Palermo. I gain so much every time I play with them. I’m able to be myself.”
Palermo is equally enamored of Brock. In an e-mail interview he said that when Brock performs with his band “The energy level goes through the roof!”
As for the repertoire, Brock said that he and Palermo collaborate on the set list. Palermo said that many of the tunes the band will be performing he only does with Brock.
“We probably won’t repeat any song from last year’s Sellersville show,” said Palermo. “I don’t like to spoil surprises by pre-announcing tunes. Some of them are BIG surprises and some are very theatric in nature. I will say that we plan to play a couple of songs from the ‘Hot Rats’ (1969) album.”
Brock added: “We have this camaraderie that is magical. They know that I’m living a dream, they’re living a dream. We have been doing this so long together that we are all just family. We come there with the attitude and intention of making those people who come to the show leave thinking that they did not pay enough for the ticket.”
Palermo said: “I am SO excited about bringing Napoleon to Sellersville. I promise a show people will be talking about for YEARS!”
IF YOU GO
What: The Ed Palermo Big Band featuring Napoleon Murphy Brock
When: Concert is at 7: 30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 30; doors open at 7.
Where: Sellersville Theater 1894, 24 W. Temple Ave., Sellersville.
Tickets: $21.50 and $29.50 at www.st94.com
Artists’ websites: www.palermobigband.com and www.napoleonmbrock.com