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.

Advertisements

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

A Riveting, Exhilaratingly Dark Lincoln Center Album Release Show by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra

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 earlier this week. In a sense, the record brings the former Beat Circus leader full circle with his noir roots, in the process rescuing all kinds of eerie, genre-shattering 1930s and 40s tunes from obscurity.

From the first uneasy, enigmatic solo of the night – from alto saxophonist Andy Laster – to the last one, a furtively expansive one from tenor player Ben Kono – this mighty seventeen-piece edition of the band were obviously jumping out of their shoes to be playing this material. Since before the group’s wildly popular 2013 Book of Rhapsodies album, trumpeter/conductor Carpenter has dedicated himself to resurrecting the work of little-known carnivalesque composers, most notably Reginald Foresythe, a British pianist who was more than a half-century ahead of his time.

Recast in Carpenter’s new arrangement, one of that composer’s numbers sounded like a beefed-up swing version of a noir surf number by Beninghove’s Hangmen. A serpentine, bolero-tinged tune again evoked that current-day cinematic band, drummer Rob Garcia having fun rattling the traps in tandem with the moody low-end pulse of bassist Michael Bates and tuba player Ron Caswell.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, guitarist Avi Bortnick added the occasional marionettish ping or pop to goose the music when it threatened to go completely dark. The rest of the band – Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, Dennis Lichtman  on clarinet, Mazz Swift on violin, and Emily Bookwalter on viola – were bolstered by a six-piece choir including but not limited to the soaring Aubrey Johnson and Tammy Scheffer. The extra voices added deviously incisive counterpoint on all ends of the spectrum as well.

There were two swinged-out arrangements of Chopin pieces, the second an impromptu, which featured the night’s most sizzling solo, a lickety-split series of harmonically-spiced cascaces from Swift. She’d reprise that with a little more brevity during an epic take of Raymond Scott’s Celebration on the Planet Mars, along with similarly punchy solos from Hasselbring, Kono, Laster, Garcia and Caswell. A couple of romping, swinging, sometimes vaudevillian and occasionally cartoonish Alec Wilder tunes gave the band something approximating comic relief. Watch this space for a more in-depth look at the amazing new album.

January 7, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, 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’s Ghost Train Orchestra Resurrects Rare, Darkly Pioneering Cinematic Swing

Trumpeter Brian Carpenter‘s Ghost Train Orchestra has most recently capitalized on the nuevo moldy fig jazz market; their 2011 album Hothouse Stomp was an irresistibly frantic romp through the books of obscure hot jazz bandleaders Charlie Johnson, Tiny Parham and Fess Williams. But Carpenter has roots in noir music, from his days with Boston band Beat Circus in the early 90s, so the Ghost Train Orchestra’s new album Book of Rhapsodies is something of a return to form. When it’s not, it’s a mix of early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s. There will be some listeners who see the cd sleeve art or the Raymond Scott compositions and assume that this is kitsch, or will misuse the word “ironic” in describing it, both of which would be a mistake

Beyond the frequent noir, there’s a winking, sotto vocce “see if they get it” to many of these compositions, but that’s less musician-insiderness than simply tongue-in-cheek fun. The album opens with Charlie’s Prelude, by Louis Singer (who wrote charts for the pioneering cult favorite John Kirby Sextet in the 30s), turning the immortal Chopin E Minor Prelude into a borrowed Black & Tan Fantasy with a bluesy slink and a broodingly resonant trombone lead from Curtis Hasselbring. Beethoven Riffs On, also by Singer, swings a theme from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony with a latin-tinged hi-de-ho bounce. Carpenter and ensemble rescue British composer Reginald Foresythe’s Volcanic (Eruption for Orchestra) from obscurity with a dixieland scamper spiced with the occasional eerie flourish from Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet. And Carpenter’s arrangement of another Foresythe track, Revolt of the Yes Men gives banjoist Brandon Seabrook a chance to buzz and be a tremolo-picking thorn in the side of the orchestra and their intricate exchange of voices; it’s more revolutionary than simply having been ahead of its 1936 era.

Dawn on the Desert, by Kirby Sextet trumpeter Charlie Shavers, does Gershwin’s Summertime as a Hollywood hijaz nocturne, Carpenter’s moody trumpet exchanging with Avi Bortnick’s ominously tremoloing guitar, then morphs into a skronky march reminscent of late 80s John Zorn. The album’s centerpieces, more or less, come from the Alec Wilder catalog: the lushly orchestrated, suspiciously deadpan Dance Man Buys a Farm (an apt juxtaposition with Raymond Scott’s The Happy Farmer); the more moody, tensely pulsing It’s Silk, Feel It; The Children Meet the Train, which is Old Man River thinly disguised at doublespeed; and Her Old Man Was (At Times) Suspicious, which with its sudden jump-cut phrasing is the closest thing here to Scott’s Looney Tunes soundtracks.

There are also a couple additional, absolutely killer tracks from the Scott catalog. At An Arabian House Party works a creepy noir swing fueled by Bortnick’s jagged, Steve Ulrich-esque guitar in place of the original harpsichord part, like Beninghove’s Hangmen playing it very close to the vest. And Celebration on the Planet Mars, with its surreal,  atmospheric swells and fades, serves as a magic carpet for the rest of the ensemble to take for an unselfconsciously joyous, vaudevillian ride. The rest of this edition of the band includes Andy Laster on alto sax; Petr Cancura on tenor sax and clarinet; Tanya Kalmanovitch on viola; Mazz Swift on violin and vocals; Brandon Seabrook on banjo; Ron Caswell on tuba, Michael Bates on bass and Rob Garcia on drums. Their previous album spent a long time at the top of the Billboard jazz charts; one suspects this will do the same. They play the album release show at Subculture at 8 PM on Oct 26.

October 12, 2013 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