Brian Carpenter and the Ghost Train Orchestra are not about re-creating either hot jazz from the ’20s or novelty works from the ’30s and ’40s. They’re interested in capturing the spirit that they perceive to be inside these almost-forgotten pieces and using that spirit to make original new music.
Book of Rhapsodies, Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra. (Accurate Records)
By Steve Elman
If you’re an old-school listener to Ira Glass’s radio series “This American Life,” you’ve probably heard “Charlie’s Prelude.” It’s a winsome, slightly melancholy piece from the ’40s, written by Louis Singer for John Kirby’s sextet. The recording Glass uses is the original, with trumpeter Charlie Shavers stating the main theme over a repeating figure played by alto sax and clarinet, with the reeds taking the lead on the bridge. In his early years, Glass used it fairly frequently to color an element of a story he was featuring. To my ear, it always worked as a double-edged sword, adding something contemplative to the mix at the same time it was adding something wry or sly.
Even in its original setting, as part of the repertoire of Kirby’s idiosyncratic salon-jazz group, “Charlie’s Prelude” was ironic. That’s ironic: not sarcastic, satiric, burlesque, or nudge-nudge, but carrying at least two messages at once, for those smart enough to hear them. Singer took the theme directly from Chopin’s piano prelude in e-minor, Op. 28, No. 4, where its mood is echt Chopin – ethereal, heart-tugging, tinged with sadness. Singer’s re-setting gave it a kind of sad-clown quality and more drama, especially in the little crescendo he put into the bridge. “Charlie’s Prelude” might well have suited Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in one of his quieter moments, and the Chopin theme provides an in-joke wink to people who recognize the original.
Irony’s complexities and ambiguities of emotion have fit jazz particularly well. From the beginning, jazzpeople have used irony in all its forms, from subtle to broad. Subtle ironies date back at least to Louis Armstrong’s 1931 recording of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” where Armstrong at one moment turns the poetry of the lyric into a scat-and-patter song and seconds later gives the theme an awe-inspiring statement on his trumpet. The broad ones are legion, again from the very start – for example, Duke Ellington’s 1926 theme song, “East St. Louis Toodle – O,” which quotes the funeral march from Chopin’s b minor piano sonata as a way of capping its mock-mournfulness.
But irony is in the mind of the beholder. To be truly ironic, an artistic statement has to work on a ground, an understood something against which the art work sets up a kind of mental dissonance. Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” is a painting of a pipe, not a pipe itself; its famous caption (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”) hits the viewer over the head with the irony; but the viewer has to understand the dissonance to appreciate the art. Films noirs are shot through with ironies, but their plot twists and sharp dialogue vibrate against the ground of the American middle-class moral order of the 1940s and 1950s; the more removed the viewer is from those moral givens, the more stylized and less ironic those films may seem.
Personally, I’m constantly comparing what I hear with what I’ve heard, and I sometimes perceive musical ironies that the artists may not intend. Herewith, a tale of my own misperceptions and subsequent enlightenment, courtesy of Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra:
When I saw and heard their first release (Hothouse Stomp, Accurate, 2011), I was a bit put off. The CD jacket was designed as if the recording consisted of re-creations of music from Harlem and Chicago in the 1920s. I was initially impressed by the fact that Carpenter had chosen to revive music by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra – two ensembles that most critics would type as underappreciated and worthy of greater attention. But he also chose music from bands led by Tiny Parham and Fess Williams, two figures for whom the word “obscure” would be an understatement. What was Carpenter up to, anyway?
I listened to the CD, still expecting re-creations, and what I heard seemed odd. I owned a couple of the original sides Carpenter was covering, and the originals seemed to me to be superior in almost every way to what I was hearing on the new CD. The Carpenter recordings were missing something that I would call the tension between ambition and reality – often these 1920s bands seemed to be reaching beyond their capabilities in their few chances to record, either because the arrangements weren’t as good as the players or the players weren’t as good as the arrangements. Still, the flaws in execution represented for me the unrealized hope of greatness, a frisson of regret for music that could never be what its creators wanted it to be. I loved the feel of those original recordings, and because I hoped Carpenter would take them to new heights with modern players, I felt a little betrayed that the CD didn’t live up to my expectations.
I had some other qualms. The Ghost Train Orchestra had two string players, which would not be typical of these little big bands. Some of the solos were far from period style, notably the alto spots by Andy Laster, which sounded as if Jimmy Lyons or Steve Coleman had been time-traveled to sit in with the Fletcher Henderson band. Some of the tracks featured well-played but inappropriate musical saw. And instead of the four distinct musical voices of those ’20s bands, I heard a rather consistent sound from track to track. I concluded that Hothouse Stomp was an attempt to be ironic rather than reverent. After I’d heard the CD once, I penciled “more novelty than authenticity” on the liner and set it aside.
Others were more enthusiastic. Terry Gross interviewed Carpenter on “Fresh Air,” and she seemed genuinely impressed. Downbeat gave the CD an editor’s pick. NPR put Hothouse Stomp into their list of the best jazz of 2011. Rick Anderson of All Music called it a “relentlessly rollicking good time.” Steve Greenlee of The Boston Globe called it a “crazy-beautiful living-history lesson.” My Fuse colleague Jon Garelick, whose work I always respect, said that it was “music from the heart of the Jazz Age that still has a raucous immediacy.” All the praise gave me pause, but I still felt that Hothouse Stomp wasn’t right somehow.
Finally, I read a review from someone calling himself or herself “boston403” on Amazon that seemed to embody what I perceived to be the essential misunderstanding: “How many times have you heard old scratchy recordings of music from the 20′s or 30′s and said ‘I wish someone would play these tunes today in a modern studio’ Well someone has finally done it.”
This was far from the truth, at least as I heard it. So I contented myself to be at odds with the tastemakers (nothing new there), and that was that, for a couple of years.
And then, about two months ago, I received the new Ghost Train Orchestra CD, Book of Rhapsodies. It had an auspicious start – a cover by the brilliant “contemporary primitive” artist Noah Woods, who had designed the cover for the Bill Frisell – Hal Willner CD, “Unspeakable” (Nonesuch, 2004).
The repertoire was completely different from what they’d played on Hothouse Stomp. This time, Carpenter had chosen a collection of eccentric compositions from the ’30s and ’40s – complicated little pieces that stretched ideas from popular music and jazz into remarkably unconventional shapes. In their own time, these were novelty items, ironic to their first listeners because they were so ambitious and most popular music of that time was so formulaic. There were pieces by Raymond Scott, who’s primarily remembered these days for “Powerhouse,” a theme that accompanied frenetic chases in Warner Brothers cartoons. There were some of the octets by Alec Wilder, a maverick who did everything his own way – he wrote distinctive popular songs and classical pieces as well as these curiosities. There were two pieces by someone I knew not at all – Reginald Foresythe – and two that I thought of as marginal jazz, tunes written by Louis Singer for John Kirby’s band. Still, I have a quirky passion for music in the margins, so I dug in with high hopes.
One of the pieces I knew was “Charlie’s Prelude,” which leads the CD, with Carpenter playing the trumpet part. In a few seconds, I was fascinated. Carpenter was decorating the theme with slurs and ritards, playing it with great expressivity – but it wasn’t the way Charlie Shavers had played it, and it wasn’t the way Steve Bernstein played it on Don Byron’s CD Bug Music (Nonesuch, 1996), the only alternate version I knew. A bit later, there was Foresythe’s “Volcanic,” explosive in the way the title suggests, but very complicated, and very cleanly played by the band. From tune to tune, I worked my way through the CD, finding things I liked and things I didn’t, but always hearing something I admire – an original sensibility. Clearly I had misjudged Brian Carpenter and his band.
The last two pieces on the recording were the best to my ears – Wilder’s “Her Old Man Was (at Times) Suspicious” and Carpenter’s radical expansion of Scott’s “Celebration on the Planet Mars.” By now, I’d come to enjoy and appreciate the playing of tenor saxophonist Petr Cancura and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring. These guys were versatile, interesting, and – that word again – original. In “Her Old Man,” they take some of the best solos on the disc, and the whole performance jells impressively with a series of Steve Lacyish obsessive repeats at the end, over which Hasselbring tears it up like Roswell Rudd.
But “Celebration on the Planet Mars” was much more ambitious. Carpenter’s “arrangement” is really a new work, almost three times longer than the three-minute original. In his notes, he pointed to a trance-like section that reminded him of Sun Ra, and he uses that section (which appears only once in the original) as a framing device. In the first seconds, Carpenter gives the trance figures to his string players, adding anachronistic colors – watery vocal samples and dit-dit-dit-dah-dah electrical signals from guitarist Avi Bortnick. Cancura’s tenor comes in over this, the rhythm establishes, and Cancura slides from a jump feel to some Bennie Wallace-style wails and shrieks. There’s a sudden segue to Scott’s first theme, played snappily by the whole band. Then the trance section returns, underpinning a beautifully constructed trombone solo by Hasselbring that builds heat and musical interest at the same time. Again, there’s a sudden segue to another written-out theme from Scott, and a surprising transition to a staccato vocal chorus, sounding a bit like Steve Reich’s group, with near-bullfight figures over it and heavily vibratoed guitar added to the mix. Mazz Swift and Dennis Lichtman follow with pungent violin and clarinet solos over a straight swing feel. A drum break introduces Andy Laster on alto over the full ensemble, which opens up like a Mingus band under Eric Dolphy. Then there’s a very strong guitar solo by Bortnick, with gradually thickening background. Finally, the trance section returns, with Cancura’s tenor now mirroring the vocal samples. The ensemble dies away, leaving Cancura a capella, alone out in space.
I was convinced. Brian Carpenter knew what he was doing, and this CD had passed my acid test – I wanted to hear it again right away, and I knew I would want to hear it many more times after that.
I also knew that I’d misheard the earlier release somehow, and that I needed more data to understand Carpenter’s purposes. To do justice to the music, I decided that I’d have to speak to him directly, and we talked by phone on December 13, where he cleared the fog and brought his aesthetic into focus.
The headline: Carpenter and the Ghost Train Orchestra are not about re-creating either hot jazz from the ’20s or novelty works from the ’30s and ’40s. They’re interested in capturing the spirit that they perceive to be inside these almost-forgotten pieces and using that spirit to make original new music.
I can think of very few other cases where artists have walked the line between old and new so convincingly. There are dozens of hommages to vintage jazz, ranging from note-perfect period re-creations to radical reworkings, but Carpenter’s work exists outside of this continuum. It is as if he considers all the musical materials at his disposal beyond the contexts imposed on them by time. He does not use echo effects or samples or a vocal choir or the modern vocabulary of his musicians as contemporary elements, ironically commenting on compositions and conventions from the past. He brings in these elements as tone colors that earlier composer-arrangers might have used if those effects had been available to them. As he said, “The music [we work with] has good bones. It can be taken in many different ways. [Our versions] should be enjoyable whether or not you know the originals.”
After we talked, I came to realize that there is at least one element of his creative process that has not been appreciated fully by previous reviewers: Carpenter is one of the most inventive and gifted transcribers working today, if one can even call what he does transcribing. In a November 2012 interview with Kickstarter’s James Yee, he said:
I went to the 78s and transcribed the material from scratch . . . Working out the harmonies and voicings are the most time-consuming part of it . . . I’ll usually listen to the original recording once or twice to jot down some transcriptions and then I try to forget about it. [my italics]
When I spoke with him, he said that he never went to school for formal musical training and instead developed his ear from listening to recordings, working with other musicians, and gradually developing his skill in reading scores. He said that once he has a transcription done to his satisfaction, he throws it away and works on his own interpretation of the piece.
The magnitude of this ability only becomes clear when one hears the complexity of the originals and the details in his scores. Especially on Book of Rhapsodies, there is so much going on in the music that Carpenter must have very big ears to have captured it all so quickly. Further, those ears must be connected to an acute musical judgment that permits him to adapt and shape the music as colorfully as he does.
I’m not convinced by everything Carpenter comes up with. On a number of the pieces (notably two of the Alec Wilders), he uses a chorus of six voices, including his own. He told me that he had an interest in the work of the Swingle Singers, and there are moments that (unfortunately for me) recall this group. There are some passages that bring back even more unpleasant memories of the Ray Conniff Singers, with wordless phonemes (bum-bum-bum, dah-dah-dah, doo-doo-doo) doubling the instrumental lines. But here, I’m bringing my own ground to Carpenter’s work, comparing what I know (and the emotional baggage that goes along with it) to effects that he uses guilelessly, and that many other listeners may be encountering for the first time.
A few more facts may be in order here, just to fill out the picture: the Ghost Train Orchestra has New England roots; Carpenter makes his home in Arlington, Massachusetts, and the band came to be in 2006 when he was commissioned by the Regent Theatre to write music for a vaudeville show. Music is still a passionate sideline in his life, not his primary source of income; he’s a full-time electronics engineer, working some 40 or 50 hours a week at his day job. And Ghost Train Orchestra is only one of his musical projects. He has a strong interest in songwriting, which takes center stage in his semi-rock band The Confessions and his octet Beat Circus, a group that draws on what he calls “weird American gothic” and Americana a la Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, featuring his own story-songs. He is currently at work on a musical with the working title Barbary Coast, and he fantasizes about a grand musical project for gospel choir and orchestra that would explore the vast range of music in funeral traditions, from classical to church music to folk to New Orleans.
Ghost Train Orchestra has at least two more CDs in the works. The next one, Hot Town, will return to the era of Hothouse Stomp, adding the color of bass saxophone from Colin Stetson and playing more of what Carpenter calls the “atmospheric, haunting” pieces from ‘20s New York and Chicago, including tunes from the repertoire of the Cecil Scott Band, a New York-based group that rivalled Fletcher Henderson and Charlie Johnson. The fourth CD will pick up where Book of Rhapsodies leaves off – including more Scott and Wilder compositions.
When I asked Carpenter how he maintained stability in a group that plays such unusual repertoire and performs only sporadically, he gave an answer that meshed well with what I had come to perceive as a distinctive philosophy: he maintains that loyalty from his players by taking only those gigs that pay well enough to keep the players happy. And there’s one more point to make: when GTO plays live, they open up the arrangements for more extensive soloing – in my book, that makes seeing one of their live shows a priority for 2014. And fortunately for us in New England, Ghost Train Orchestra’s next tour will include at least one stop here. In addition to dates in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, they’ll be playing at Scullers in April. The Boston date is April 9.
So, I’m chastened and tickled by Carpenter’s work with the Ghost Train Orchestra. I regret that I almost set this music aside because I was the Listener Who Knew Too Much, and because I violated one of my own core principles: understand the motives of the artists before you pass judgment. In this case, a lot of knowledge was a dangerous thing. Isn’t that ironic?
Steve Elman’s forty-three years in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on WCRB / Classical New England three years. He was jazz and popular music editor of the Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.
He is the co-author of Burning Up the Air (Commonwealth Editions, 2008), which chronicles the first fifty years of talk radio through the life of talk-show pioneer Jerry Williams. He is a former member of the board of directors of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.