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Music Review: Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Hothouse Stomp

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Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra soaks up the music of the 1920s on Hothouse Stomp, a recording dedicated to the sounds of the era out of Chicago and Harlem.

Before the days of big band, varying visions of the large jazz ensemble unfolded across America. Cats like Fletcher Henderson and Bennie Moten set the standard and other groups came in with vibrant and tight horn sections and broader sounds. Less “conventional” instrumentations would take hold and seminal groups would dazzle jumping crowds with relentless energy.

Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra focuses on four such groups: Fess Williams’ Royal Flush, Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra (also known as the Paradise Ten), McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, and Tiny Parham and His Musicians. Meticulous liner notes reveal the meat and potatoes behind these bands, allowing the listener plenty to sink his or her teeth into as the songs play.

Carpenter’s group makes its album debut with Hothouse Stomp after playing several shows in New York City. The band came together after the trumpeter and arranger was selected as the musical director for Voltaire Vaudeville, an event that marked the 90th anniversary of Arlington’s Regent Theater.

Carpenter plucked the cream of the crop for his Ghost Train Orchestra. Joining the Boston native is a massive roster of talent: Dennis Lichtman (clarinet), Andy Laster (alto saxophone), Matt Bauder (tenor saxophone), Curtis Hasselbring (trombone), Mazz Swift (vocals and violin), Brandon Seabrook (banjo), Ron Caswell (tuba), and Rob Garcia (drums).

Carpenter’s decision to use Caswell’s tuba to formulate the bass line is a good one, giving the whole record a brassy sound without being shrill. The banjo of Seabrook adds texture, while the less traditional arrangements let the performers coast to the front without showing off in the mix.

Hothouse Stomp opens with a track that draws us in to the Ghost Train Orchestra with just a hint of mystery. Carpenter plays harmonica over a lush swell of strings and things fly up to a fever pitch that carries through to the rest of the record.

“Stop Kidding,” a piece by one of the Cotton Pickers’ chief arrangers John Nesbitt, takes hold with delightful swing and twin horn paths. The strings add a smoothness, while Garcia’s drums are on-point with accurate, fun fills.

Elsewhere, the Ghost Train Orchestra takes on Charlie Johnson’s “Hot Bones and Rice” with a big sweaty mouthful of the blues. It’s very nearly a rag, but most of all, it’s hot and bothered with a blistering trumpet solo and some slow, plodding, dirty rhythm. Caswell’s tuba sits way, way down low. Awesome stuff.

For an extra thrill, Swift sings on “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” and Johnson’s “Blues Sure Have Got Me.” The latter features a musical saw as accompaniment, but Swift takes over and outshines the blaring horns.

An affectionate look at the jazz of the 1920s, Hothouse Stomp hits the swinging mark dead-on. Carpenter knows his stuff and it shows in every arrangement, generating more than enough heat for the hip crowd while putting some spice in the compositions to liven up the old-timers.

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