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Music Review: Ken Peplowski – Noir Blue

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Ken Peplowski’s Noir Blue is one of those jazz records that just swings and sways naturally. Its ten silky tracks find the reedman respectful of tradition, sure, but he still allows his own diverse tastes the chance to slip up to the surface.

Peplowski is one of those unique post-Swing Era performers who hits all the bases. With Noir Blue, he offers up heaping servings of clarinet and tenor sax. Better still, the guy’s mastered both instruments and delivers the goods with the convention and bearing of the likes of Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins.

Out now on Capri Records, Noir Blue also features drummer Joe LaBarbera, bassist Jay Leonhart and pianist Shelly Berg.

Perhaps what is most captivating about this record is just how damn listenable it is. It slides around the palette like red wine, angling for flavour and refreshment simultaneously. Noir Blue goes down smooth, resting easily towards the back of the ears with simmering, soothing sweetness.

Peplowski was born in Ohio and was instantly drawn into the joy of performing. Whether it was a Polish polka band or some fun with his trumpeter brother Ted Peplowski, Ken was all business from an early age. He joined the Buddy Morrow-directed Tommy Dorsey Orchestra after one year of college and eventually met and studied with bop icon Sonny Stitt. Stitt was the cat that really showed Peplowski the ropes on the tenor sax.

After finding an appreciation for the clarinet working with Benny Goodman, Peplowski signed to Concord Records and started releasing records. Some 30 CDs later, Peplowski made his debut as a leader with Capri.

With such an intimidating pedigree, one might think Peplowski’s Noir Blue would be a little hard to reach. It is, as I said, just the opposite. Peplowski’s playing is smooth and gregarious, as though he’s kindly conversing and interacting with the listener.

Kicking off with Irving Berlin’s “The Best Thing for You” is a nice touch. Peplowski and Berg exchange notes, with the pianist’s flourishes agreeably offsetting the reedman’s exciting clarinet.

Elsewhere, Peplowski tackles a LaBarbera original (“If Not For You”) and one of his own compositions (“Little Dogs”).

It is Billy Strayhorn’s “Multi-Colored Blue” that makes for my personal favourite, however. The beautiful, focused pace lets Peplowski introduce soft, tender passages of clarinet and Berg’s soft punches of piano give the number some additional texture.

Noir Blue is one of the coolest jazz records I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in a while. While it really is light as air, there’s no mistaking the quality and creativity of Peplowski and his bandmates. Every song unfolds with tenderness and precision, pushing calmly and decisively with range and ritual always in tow.

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