Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Ghost Train Orchestra Steam Back to Upbeat, Playful Terrain

Back in January, this blog asserted that “It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.” The album is actually far more lighthearted and frequently cartoonish, with ambitious charts that strongly evoke 50s lounge jazz oddball innovator Juan Garcia Esquivel. Once again, the ensemble have created a setlist of strangely compelling obscurities from the 30s and 40s.

In an era when nobody buys albums anymore, the Ghost Train Orchestra have sold an amazing number of them, topping the jazz charts as a hot 20s revival act. Yet for the last five years or so, frontman/trumpeter Carpenter has been revisiting his noir roots from back in the 90s, with lavishly rewarding results. This release – streaming at Bandcamp – is characteristically cinematic, but seldom very dark. It opens with cartoon music maven Raymond Scott’s Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxi Cabs. a romp with horn and siren effects that comes together with a jubilantly brassy, New Orleans-tinged pulse, bringing to mind the Microscopic Septet at their most boisterous.

Likewise, Mazz Swift’s violin and Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet spiral and burst over the scampering pulse of bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia in Hal Herzon’s Hare and Hounds – meanwhile, some goof in the band is boinging away on a jawharp. Reginald Forsythe’s Deep Forest, which Carpenter wryly introduces as “A hymn to darkness, part one,” is closer to Esquivel taking a stab at covering Black and Tan Fantasy, guitarist Avi Bortnick adding spikily ominous contrast beneath the band’s the ragtimey stroll.

The strutting miniature Pedigree on a Pomander Walk, the second Herzon tune, is just plain silly. Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek muted lines mingle with Ben Kono’s tenor sax and the rest of the horns in Alec Wilder’s Walking Home in Spring, Ron Caswell’s tuba bubbling underneath. The latin-tinged Deserted Ballroom, a final Herzon number, has a balmy bounce over a creepy chromatic vamp, a choir of voices supplying campy vocalese over lush strings and a Chicago blues solo from Bortnick. A neat trick ending takes it into far darker, Beninghove’s Hangmen-ish territory.

The disquiet is more distant but ever-present in A Little Girl Grows Up, a Wilder tune, despite the childlike vocals and coyly buoyant, dixieland-flavored horns. The band make Esquivellian Romany swing out of Chopin with Fantasy Impromptu: Swift’s classical cadenza toward the end is devilishly fun. They follow that with another Wilder number, Kindergarten Flower Pageant, which would be tongue-in-cheek fun save for that annoying kiddie chorus. Sometimes children really should be seen and not heard.

A playful minor-key cha-cha, Lament for Congo – another Forsythe tune – has bristling guitar, lush strings, faux-shamanic drums, Tarzan vocals and a lively dixieland interlude. The strings in Wilder’s The House Detective Registers look back to Django Reinhardt as much as the winds take the music back a decade further. The final tune, by Forsythe, is Garden of Weed, which doesn’t seem to be about what you probably think it is. It’s a somber, early Ellingtonian-flavored ragtime stroll, Garcia’s hardware enhancing the primitive, lo-fi ambience, up to a livelier exchange of voices.

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October 7, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ghost Train Orchestra Bring the Roaring 20s and the Not-So-Roaring 20s to the Jalopy

The Ghost Train Orchestra differentiate themselves from most of the oldtime swing bands out there in that they don’t play standards. They specialize in rescuing lost treasures from the 20s and 30s, songs that were typically unknown outside of small, regional scenes. Part living archive, part tight, explosive dance band, it’s no wonder that their albums routinely top the jazz charts. They’re playing the cd release show for their latest one Hot Town this May 22 at 10 PM at the Jalopy. Because the venue is expecting a sellout, they’re selling advance tix for $10. Opening the show at 9, GTO clarinetist Dennis Lichtman does double duty and switches to his fiddle and maybe his mandolin out in front of his western swing band Brain Cloud.

The new album is a mix of songs that didn’t make it onto the orchestra’s 2011 breakthrough album Hothouse Stomp, along some even more obscure rediscoveries and a couple that might be slightly better known – go figure! The title track is actually a reinvention rather than a straight-up cover -and it was actually a big hit for Harlem’s Fess Williams and his orchestra in 1929 as a vamping novelty tune. This version has guest bass saxophonist Colin Stetson providing eerie diesel-train overtones before the clickety-clack groove gets underway. A second track originally done by Williams, You Can’t Go Wrong has more of a 19th century plantation-folk feel than the rest of the material here.

This album marks the debut release of Mo’Lasses, the second track, recorded by Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, also in 1929, but never released. As rapidfire doom blues (is that a genre?) go, it’s got a striking early Ellingtonian sophistication; bandleader Brian Carpenter’s trumpet, Petr Cancura’s clarinet and Curtis Hasselbring’s trombone all get brisk solos.

Hot jazz cult bandleader Charlie Johnson is represented by You Ain’t the One, with its jaunty, staccato brass and low-key but determined Mazz Swift vocals – and Charleston Is the Best Dance After All, which winds up the album. Benny Waters’ Harlem Drag strongly suggests that the Rolling Stones nicked it, hook and all, for Spider & the Fly. There are two numbers from the catalog of late 20s Harlem composer/bandleader Cecil Scott & His Bright Boys: Bright Boy Blues, with its slowly swaying, luminously morose chart, and the more upbeat but similarly indigo-toned Springfield Stomp.

Fats Waller’s Alligator Crawl alternates droll mmm-hmmm backing vocals with spritely dixieland clarinet and vaudevillian muted trombone. Chicago bandleader Tiny Parham – celebrated along with Williams on Hothouse Stomp -has three numbers here. Skag-a-Lag sets a rapidfire series of cameos against an oldtimey levee camp hook; Down Yonder features a call-and-response chart and sudden, klezmer-tinged minor-key detours; the lickety-split stroll Friction calls on Hasselbring’s trombone, Swift’s violin and the rest of the band to be on tiptoe all the way through, and they are.

This one will get both the Gatsby wannabes and the rest of us out on the floor – or at least wishing we could afford to be there. This may be dance music, but it’s also rooted, sometimes front and center, sometimes less distinctly, in the blues, and the blues isn’t exactly happy-go-lucky stuff. Times weren’t easy, before or after the Crash of 1929 and the persistent undercurrent that runs throughout much of this material reflects that. The album’s not out yet, therefore no streaming link, but you can get a sense of the kind of fun this band generates at their Soundcloud page. And they always bring merch to shows.

May 20, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brian Carpenter Resurrects Obscure Jazz Treasures from the Gatsby Era

Hothouse Stomp, the new album by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra, captures a magical demimonde in American music from between roughly 1928 and 1931. Forget for a minute that by transcribing and arranging eleven now-obscure songs from that era, Carpenter has rescued them from the even smaller demimondes of 78 RMP record collectors and musicians who still play this kind of stuff. First and foremost, these rapidfire gems from Harlem and Chicago are some of that era’s coolest and most controversial party music, the P-Funk or hip-hop of that time. Kids danced to it until their feet hurt, and now so can you even if you can’t afford a Victrola or any those old 78s which now sell for ridiculous prices. On one level, many of the songs here have a quaintly frantic Keystone Kops vibe and a droll wit, but they also have a level of sophistication that far surpasses most of the era’s pop music. Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton are the big names that everybody remembers, but at the top of their game Charlie Johnson, Tiny Parham and Fess Williams were just as good. Carpenter’s imaginative new charts pay homage to the originals while freeing them from the narrow time constraints of a 78. The band here plays them joyously, sometimes almost conspiratorially: Carpenter on trumpet, harmonica and vocals on one number; Dennis Lichtman on clarinet; Andy Laster on alto sax; Matt Bauder on tenor and alto sax and clarinet; Curtis Hasselbring on trombone; Jordan Voelker on viola and singing saw; Mazz Swift on violin and vocals; Brandon Seabrook on banjo; Ron Caswell on tuba and Rob Garcia on drums.

Carpenter opens the album with a big, dramatic harmonica crescendo and then they’re off. Mojo Strut, by Chicago-based Tiny Parham and His Musicians, has an brooding Ellingtonian minor-key intensity under its bouncy beat but also a drum break that’s practically Spike Jones, and some crazed conversation between the saxes at the end. With its lush strings beneath the romping tune, Stop Kidding, originally done by Harlem band McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, blends serious and silly in the span of barely two and a half minutes. Another Cotton Pickers number, Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You (a popular staple of the oldtimey circuit), gets more of a New Orleans vibe with a good-natured alto solo, and matching vocals from Swift. Voodoo, by Parham, goes for a wary Black and Tan Fantasy feel with some quiet sizzle from the banjo on the way in and Voelker’s theremin-like saw building the atmosphere to somewhat crazed and dazed layers of horns. Harlem pianist Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra’s Blues Have Sure Got Me has a similar minor-key restraint, with the saw oscillating eerily behind Swift’s hushed, wounded voice.

A casually soulful, trombone-fueled, practically five-minute midtempo version of Johnson’s Hot Bones & Rice foreshadows how this stuff would morph into swing and dixieland. But enough of the intricacies of the music – as fun as it is to blast on the ipod, just try sitting still to the triumphantly swirling clarinet on Dixie Stomp, the lickety-split Lucky 3-6-5, the pensive sway of The Boy in the Boat, or Harlem bandleader Fess Williams’ seemingly calypso-flavored Slide, Mr. Jelly, Slide. They wrap up the album with a warm, summery Johnson tune, the surprisingly titled Hot Tempered Blues. If this often deliriously fun album piques your curiosity, some (but not all) of the originals can be streamed at the irreplaceable redhotjazz site if you have Real Audio.

March 15, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 11/22/08

Nine-piece band squeezed into the little back room playing hot jazz from the late 20s and early 30s, all of it good and much of it sensational. Much in the same vein as Michael Arenella, trumpeter Carpenter and his crew play boisterous three-minute Prohibition-era dancehall hits. While it was strange to watch the crowd simply sitting there while the band ripped through one tune after another – this is dance music, after all – it was a treat to be literally on top of the band, watching the interplay between musicians. Jazz snobs may scorn this stuff, but it’s great fun. “This is Woody Allen jazz,” one astute woman in the crowd remarked to her boyfriend between songs.

 

Minor keys are what this band does best, and that’s what they opened with, a frenetic, somewhat klezmerish stomp from 1929 called Mojo Strut, Carpenter playing harp through a bullhorn to add the strange, carnivalesque edge that continued throughout most of their set. They did a couple of ridiculously catchy numbers written by Gus Williams (Charles Mingus’ uncle), the best of these being Friction, driven by plinking banjo and soaring violin. The single best song of the night, the boisterous yet haunting Boy in the Boat had an early Ellington feel, its eeriness brought out most intensely by a sizzling violin solo and some expertly spooky work by One Ring Zero’s Michael Hearst, sitting in on theremin.

 

Because the songs are short, this group’s solos are brief: the only extended improvisations of the night were intros, duels in fact: first sax and trombone, then sax (Jessica Lurie bringing a  modernist yet smartly melodic sensibility to the old stuff whenever she was called on) vs. clarinet. A couple of times the banjoist began songs using a bow, building tension to the breaking point. After over an hour onstage, Carpenter – now playing slide trumpet – took them scurrying out the way they’d come in, dark and mysterious. Kudos to Barbes for squeezing them – literally – into the room. A band this good deserves a stand at the Vanguard. They’d bring out a lot of people out of the woodwork. Probably some ghosts too.

November 25, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment