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

Boston Band Unearths Long-Lost Esquivel Big Band Charts: Why?

Now we go from the sublime to the ridiculous. Back in Mexico in the 1950s, Juan Garcia Esquivel must have been smoking some seriously generalissimo-grade pot. Like him or not, there’s no denying the psychedelic aspect of his music. The question is, was it any good? Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica – an Either/Orchestra spinoff – offers one possible answer. On their new, period-perfect The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel, a collection of newly rediscovered big-band arrangements by the crazed, vaudevillian Mad Men era bandleader, they’re obviously having a great time. Which on one level is understandable: from a musician’s point of view, any time you get to use a bass marimba, or punctuate a big band chart with a pedal steel cadenza, it’s nothing if not a jolt to the senses. But some of this is so cheesy that it calls into question whether or not Esquivel actually liked these songs – or if he even liked jazz, or music, at all.

It’s important not to confuse an artist or their work with their fan base. It makes no more sense to associate Esquivel with the first-wave trendoids who fueled his blip of a resurgence in the early 90s than it does to blame Radiohead for the pitchfork/stereogum contingent who worship them. Yet it makes sense that trendoids would fall in love with Esquivel’s “bachelor pad” stylings. Much as Esquivel’s production was cutting-edge, with all those crazy sound effects, all too often it’s style over substance, something that dovetails perfectly with a trendoid esthetic (if you buy the argument that the words “trendoid” and “esthetic” belong in the same sentence). There are moments here that are painfully kitschy – again, the hallmark of a trendoid being an embrace of all things shallow and stupid. But lurking beneath these songs’ whizbang, Keystone Kops vibe is a snotty cynicism that borders on punk. Esquivel’s arrangements are such complete bastardizations that they’re practically hostile. Would Esquivel have preferred ranchera ballads, or norteno accordion music? Or anything other than popular 50s jazz themes? At times, it would seem so. Taken as satire, much of this is irresistibly funny.

Andalucia barrels along at a breakneck pace with snarky little piano glissandos and a kettledrum roll out. Night and Day features a brief fugue between blazing brass and the steel guitar of Tim Obetz, with random bits of lyrics that predate Lee “Scratch” Perry and dub by twenty years. The barely two-minute version of Take the A Train, like much else here, owes a debt to Spike Jones with its tribal percussion and barking horns that winds down into jungly ambience fueled by Rusty Scott’s organ. Boulevard of Broken Dreams is reinvented as a cartoonish cha-cha, slinking along with the scrape of a guacharaca, doot-doot-doot vocals and finally an exuberant Yaure Muniz trumpet solo followed by a surprisingly subdued one on piano by Mr. Ho himself. With its absurdly garish horn chart, Music Makers has gruff baritone sax trading riffs impishly with the steel. And the girlie chorus on Frenesi are clearly unable to keep a straight face as they doot-doot-doot amidst the crazed doublestops of the high brass.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. Sentimental Journey is simply unlistenable, and Mini Skirt, a familiar theme for surf music fans, hasn’t aged well – in the Cee-Lo Green era, those wolf-whistles are annoyingly cutesy. The three remaining tracks, Let’s Dance, Dancing in the Dark and the surprisingly straight-up, genially bluesy Street Scene are more good-naturedly amusing: lose the steel guitar, the funeral parlor organ and those ridiculous, blaring brass crescendos and what you’d be left with is just plain good big band jazz. Whether the rest of this is jazz, or what it is, is up to you to figure out. Maybe it’s best not to: like Sartre said, once you name something, you kill it.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment