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Music Review: Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Hothouse Stomp: The Music of 1920s Chicago and Harlem

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When most of us think of The Jazz Age, we tend to think of the small Dixieland-style ensembles of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke.  But in the late ‘20s many bands were evolving toward what would become the sound of the Big Bands.  Duke Ellington was beginning to refine his style with songs like “East St. Louis Toodlel-oo” and “The Mooche”.  In Harlem, groups like McKinney’s Cotton Pickers were breaking new ground with arrangements by John Nesbitt and Don Redman.  In Chicago, Tiny Parkham and His Musicians created a series of sides featuring memorable, minor-key arrangements that can be favorably compared to Ellington’s.

It is this era that Brian Carpenter focuses on in his new release, Hothouse Stomp:  The Music of 1920s Chicago and Harlem.  Carpenter, a singer, songwriter, actor and avant garde jazz musician, began working on the concept of this album in 2006.  The album doesn’t include any Ellington numbers; instead it includes songs by largely forgotten groups as the Cotton Pickers, Tiny Parkham, Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra and Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orchestra. The only standard included here is “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You”, by Redman and lyricist Andy Razaf.

The album is introduced by “Ghost Train (Orchestra)”, composed by Carpenter and banjoist Brandon Seabrook and featuring Carpenter on harmonica.  From there it launches into arrangements that keep to the spirit, though not always the form, of the originals.  Carpenter makes a few adjustments to 21st century tastes.  He quickens the tempo of Parham’s “Lucky 3-6-9”, and makes the rhythm in some songs more complicated than the oompa-like feel of the originals.  Finally, realizing that soloing has progressed quite a bit since 1930, he lets his players cut loose in ways that were probably unknown back then.

But beyond giving attention to neglected jazz pioneers, this album is just flat-out fun.  Besides Carpenter (who also plays trumpet and sings) and Seabrook, the ensemble consists of Dennis Lichtman (clarinet), Andy Laster (alto sax), Matt Bauder (alto, tenor and clarinet), Curtis Hasselbring (trombone), Jordan Voelker (viola, singing saw), Mazz Swift (violin, vocals), Ron Caswell (tuba) and Rob Garcia (drums).  The group seems to have a great time playing together, and their spirit and enthusiasm are infectious.  Their chemistry and fervor make “Hothouse Stomp:  The Music of 1920s Chicago and Harlem” one kick-ass history lesson and one of the few jazz albums I would recommend to non-jazz listeners.

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About Phillip Barnett

Phillip Barnett is a software geek with multiple, conflicting musical fantasies. He has played jazz piano, folk guitar and klezmer clarinet (not all at the same time - that would look ridiculous and would probably hurt his back).