August 1, 2011
Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra
Accurate Records AC-5062
Hollistic MusicWorks HMW 1
Mark Rapp’s Melting Pot
Dinemec Records DJCD 253
One of the unfortunate conceits that Jazz has inherited from so-called Classical music is the Great Man celebration. That is musical history reduced to a pantheon filled with Greek-like gods – every notice the architecture of most concert halls? – with commemorations of these heroes and their works taking up the majority of concerts and performances in these genres.
While music appreciation in Jazz hasn’t yet plummeted to Classical music’s depths, which find symphony orchestras increasingly building celebratory programs around even odd-numbered birthdates of Great Composers, the number of shows and CDs dedicated to Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and the like threatens to rewrite the music’s real history. High calibre improvised music was made and is made by journeymen and women as well as so-called musical gods. Burying the accomplishments of worthy, but lesser-known, players doesn’t let subsequent generations experience impressive music.
That’s the shortcoming these CDs, each coincidentally headed by a trumpet player, aim to overcome. Each pays tribute to some of Jazz’s less celebrated stylists, some of whom are still living. Spot on in his title of Unsung Heroes, Brian Lynch, best-known for his work with pianist Eddie Palmieri and alto saxophonist Phil Woods, celebrates his antecedents and contemporaries with his CD. Helming a tightly paced combo made up similar Baby Boom veterans, such brass men as Tommy Turrentine, Joe Gordon, Idrees Sulieman, Louis Smith and Charles Tolliver are commemorated.
Taking on an even more difficult task – and intent on avoiding caricature – is Brian Carpenter, whose 10-piece Ghost Train Orchestra is dedicated to the infancy of big band Jazz. But instead of following the familiar habit of recreating Ellington or Fletcher Henderson tunes, arranger/conductor Carpenter and his crew honor such lesser-known late 1920s groups as Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, Tiny Parham and his Musicians, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orchestra.
Perhaps the most difficult if most overdue homage is on Good Eats, since Mark Rapp’s band mostly plays the tunes of the still very much alive alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson. An early Bopper who became established as a Soul-Jazz exemplar, the saxman’s tunes are given the expected organ-guitar-drums treatment. The hurdle here is that most of the time this music was written for saxophone, leaving Rapp to create a trumpet part for himself. That he succeeds admirably is a tribute to his skill, just like the fine work the other leaders do here.
Good-time music is the specialty of both North Carolina-born Donaldson, 84, and the Melting Pot and that distinctive groove locks in as quickly as “Alligator Boogaloo”, the first number, which features saxophonist Don Braden, an associate of Rapp’s from The (Billy) Strayhorn Project. Here the trumpeter’s soaring open-horn and Braden’s slurring obbligatos blend alongside the chicken-scratch licks of guitarist Ahmad Mansour and bumping chords from organist Joe Kaplowitz. The partnership between Rapp’s reflux grace notes and Braden’s splayed timbres are also on show during the five other tracks featuring the saxman. Notable among them is “Spaceman Twist”, propelled by Austrian drummer Klemmens Marktl’s tough shuffle beat. Not only do Kaplowitz’s percolating and pitch-sliding dual-keyboard pumps define the accompaniment, but he leaves enough space for splayed vamps from Braden, and after downward sluicing organ licks, a dramatic high-note climax from Rapp.
Alone in the front line for “The Glory of Love” Rapp proves that a stentorian, yet emotional open-horn treatment can satisfy. Mixing electronically processed and psychedelic-era special effects from the brass with slurred reverb and distortion from the plugged-in instruments, the combo makes a stab at replicating early Fusion sounds. Overall though, the CD’s appeal can be summed up by the slogan chanted by all combo members during one tune: “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On)”. This is confirmed as players take turns strumming tough guitar licks, flutter-tonguing brass notes and double timing reed parts as the head is turned around and recapped.
Funky stuff of a different sort is celebrated on Hothouse Stomp, with the Ghost Train Orchestra saluting the Harlem and Southside Chicago groove merchants of the 1920 and 1930s. There’s even some warm vocalizing on a couple of well-known tunes by violinist Mazz Swift, better-known for her stint with Burnt Sugar. The key throughout, though is how well 21st Century musicians bring contemporary inventions to the dozen tunes, many of which depend on rhythmic impetus from the clanking banjo chords of Brandon Seabrook, two-beat drumming heavy on the wood block from Rob Garcia, and tubist Ron Caswell’s pedal-point pumps.
Accepting authenticity also means accepting the timbral limitations under which those early composer/arrangers – who most prominently included Don Redman besides the leaders –labored. And there are points where the choruses become a bit lugubrious, the voicing a bit too slickly trad and the rhythms a bit too herky-jerky. Yet as a recreation of the appeal of that era’s so-called “hot” bands, the CD is at a higher plane than any clichéd quasi-Dixieland creation. Moreover it’s especially noteworthy considering that rather than being a committed revivalist, Boston-based Carpenter directed a documentary film on the life and legacy of saxophonist Albert Ayler; produces radio programs; composes country and rock music for other groups; and is lead singer/lyricist in his own pop band.
Some of these songs on Hothouse Stomp were undoubtedly pop hits of their day, which may account for the references to waltz time throughout; one tune that seems to be a variant of “St Louis Blues” (Johnson’s “Blues Sure Have Got Me”); and another (“Dixie Stomp”) which literally quotes “Dixie”. Luckily the eerie Theremin-like timbres of Jordan Voelker’s singing saw adds needed color to the moderato rhythms of the former; while fiddle-scratching, plunger trumpet notes and some long-lined trills from clarinetist Dennis Lichtman make the solos more than “hot” breaks.
Acceptable merely as background sounds, the Ghost Train Orchestra’s arrangements also reveal conspicuous instrumental refinement, such as the repeated trumpet motifs atop rhythmic stomps on Williams’ “Slide, Mr. Jelly Slide”; bone-clattering from the drummer, staccato fiddling and crying clarinet lines on “The Boy in the Boat”, from Matt Bauder, usually found in advanced company such as Anthony Braxton’s ensembles; and emphasized trumpet tones, cowbell and wood block beats from Garcia, tuba blats and double-tongued clarinet from Lichtman on Parham’s “Voodoo”. Besides Lichtman, the stop-time vamps from the horn section are courtesy of certified downtown New Yorkers such as Bauer on alto and tenor saxophone, trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and alto saxophonist Andy Laster on holiday from gigs such as in pianist Satoko Fujii’s big band.
Another valued sideman of a slightly earlier generation is trumpeter Lynch, who seems to have taken up residence in Hard Bop Heaven with Unsung Heroes. Few of the heroes apprenticed with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as Lynch did, or cornetist Nat Adderley band as one of his front-line partners, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring did, but coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s, all played with most of the other important ensembles of the time. The luster of this CD is that it reveals that many of the trumpeters honored also wrote significant tunes that deserve to be played more often – at least the way Lynch and confreres handle them — and not die along with their composers.
For instance the melody line of “Saturday Afternoon At Four”, written by St. Petersburg, Fla.-native Idrees Sulieman (1923-2002), could be an early Bop classic. Moderato with a repeated lyric line, it benefits from pianist Rob Schneiderman’s dedicated glissandi and David Wong’s walking bass line; and concludes with a healthy exchange of “fours” between Lynch and drummer Pete Van Nostrand. “I Could Never Forget You” by Pittsburgh-born Tommy Turrentine (1928-1997) on the other hand, is a ballad caressed by Lynch’s open-horn, with the spare accompaniment of plucked bass and drum whispers bridging the brass man’s well-modulated grace notes and the standard progression.
A distant cousin of the out-and-out funk players such as Lou Donaldson would almost belabor is “Wetu” by Louis Smith, Memphis-born in 1931, but inactive since a 2004 stroke. Taken kinetically and pushed by clashing and clattering drums, the theme quotes “Joshua Fit De Battle” and leaves space for lick trading among the trumpets, slurs from tenor saxophonist Alex Hoffman, trills from Herring, and high-frequency runs from the pianist. By the time the tune is wrapped up with Van Nostrand’s tom-tom beating, it reveals an unexpected downward turn before its climax.
One of the few of the heroes honored here, who moved past Hard Bop, and is still performing is Jacksonville, Fla.-native Charles Tolliver, 68, whose “Household of Saud” is given an exotic reading. Lynch’s chromatic and multi-tone examination of the theme includes an Arabic tinge, while Hoffman adds widely flared blues tonality and Schneiderman double-timed repeated harmonies. By the time the pace slows in the tune’s final moments, the drummer splashes sounds from his cymbals and could be pounding a kettle drum as the final measures become higher-pitched though still recognizable.
Much needed expansion of the parliament of Jazz, each of these heart-felt tributes proves, that just like in other musics, the creation of excellent Jazz didn’t and doesn’t begin and end with a few well-known names.
Track Listing: Hothouse: 1. Ghost Train (Orchestra) 2. Mojo Strut 3. Stop Kidding 4. Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?* 5. Voodoo 6. Blues Sure Have Got Me* 7. Hot Bones and Rice 8. Dixie Stomp 9. Lucky 3-6-9 10. The Boy in the Boat 11. Slide, Mr. Jelly Slide 12. Hot Tempered Blues
Personnel: Hothouse: Brian Carpenter (trumpet, harmonica and vocals); Curtis Hasselbring (trombone); Dennis Lichtman (clarinet); Andy Laster (alto saxophone); Matt Bauder (tenor and alto saxophones and clarinet); Mazz Swift, violin and vocals*); Jordan Voelker (viola and saw); Brandon Seabrook (banjo); Ron Caswell (tuba) and Rob Garcia (drums)
Track Listing: Unsung: 1. Terra Firma Irma 2. I Could Never Forget You 3. Further Arrivals* 4. Saturday Afternoon At Four 5. Household of Saud 6. Roditi Samba* 7. Big Red 8. Unsung Blues 9. Wetu.
Personnel: Unsung: Brian Lynch (trumpet and flugelhorn); Vincent Herring (alto saxophone); Alex Hoffman (tenor saxophone); Rob Schneiderman (piano); David Wong (bass); Pete Van Nostrand (drums) and Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero (congas*)
Track Listing: Good: 1. Alligator Boogaloo* 2. Brother Soul* 3. Elizabeth 4. Spaceman Twist* 5. Love Power* 6. One Cylinder 7. Pot Belly 8. Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On)* 9. Good Eats 10. Streetbeater (Sanford and Son)* 11. The Glory of Love
Personnel: Good: Mark Rapp (trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn and didgeridoo); Don Braden (tenor saxophone and alto flute)*; Joe Kaplowitz (Hammond B3 organ); Ahmad Mansour (guitar) and Klemens Marktl (drums and percussion)