Peplowski Enraptures Listeners in New Album

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ENRAPTURE / ELLINGTON: The Flaming Sword. WARREN-McCAREY-ADAMSON: An Affair to Remember. LENNON-ONO: Oh, My Love. NEWLEY-BRICUSSE: Cheer Up, Charlie. COWARD: I’ll Follow My Secret Heart. NICHOLS: Enrapture. ERSKINE: Twelve. HERRMANN: Vertigo Scene d’Amour/Madeleine (Love Music from “Vertigo”). MANILOW-MERCER: When October Goes. WALLER-RAZAF: Willow Tree / Ken Peplowski, cl/t-sax; Ehud Asherle, pno; Martin Wind, bs; Matt Wilson, dm/perc / Capri Records 74141-2

Ken Peplowski, king of trad-jazz clarinet, has like so many of his idols from the past moved ever-so-slightly forward in his musical thinking over the years. No, he hasn’t yet embraced avant-garde or atonal jazz, but he has moved far enough forward to encompass one of Duke Ellington’s more unusual compositions (The Flaming Sword) as well as tunes by Herbie Nichols (Enrapture) and Barry Manilow (When October Goes), so at least he’s moved towards the late 20th century.

All kidding aside, however, Peplowski has never sounded finer. His slightly reedy, quasi-Benny Goodman tone is fluid and under complete control, and his ideas flow forth with prodigious imagination. Indeed, so outgoing and inventive is he in The Flaming Sword that he almost sets a high bar for himself to aspire to in the rest of the record. Happily he has the extremely versatile Matt Wilson on drums to help guide him through whatever musical mazes he chooses to explore, and Wilson in turn sounds almost as ecstatic as Peplowski to be playing this music.

I have to admit that I was not as familiar with Peplowski the tenor saxist, thus I was a bit amazed to hear his laid-back, liquid, breathy tone on An Affair to Remember. So when Peplowski plays clarinet he channels Goodman, but on tenor sax he apparently embraces his inner Ben Webster! Yet when he hits the improvised choruses, Peplowski—though employing some other Webster-isms such as the slightly raspy high note here and there—plays in a busier style, a bit more like Coleman Hawkins. Interesting. Pianist Asherle, though playing in an accepted swing style, is a bit more modern-sounding, and bassist Martin Wind’s gorgeous, lyrical single-note solos are a far cry from almost any swing-era bassist, even the prodigious Jimmy Blanton.

I was mesmerized by their performance of Oh, My Love, a John Lennon tune I’d never heard before (sorry, but I pretty much cut off the Beatles’ individual efforts once they broke up). Despite being a slow ballad, it almost has a klezmer-like feel to the melodic line, or at least Peplowski’s clarinet tends to brings that side of it out. The entire performance is accompanied solely by bass, which gives it greater intimacy. Anthony Newley, probably my least favorite pop song composer of the ‘60s after Burt Bacharach, turns up next in one of his innocuous ballads, Cheer Up, Charlie, which Peplowski’s quartet nonetheless makes music of. Even better than the leader on this track, however, is pianist Asherle, whose solo is the embodiment of exquisite. The pianist also excels on Noel Coward’s I’ll Follow My Secret Heart, a rare excursion into waltz tempo for this band, but Peplowski’s clarinet solo is warm and rich.

Peplowski and company do a nice job on Nichols’ Enrapture, one of his few tunes that had a sort of Thelonious Monk tinge about it. I was particularly interested to hear how Peplowski would handle the asymmetric rhythms of Nichols, and I have to say that he does a nice job with them, although when he hits the improvised choruses his tendency is to smooth out the beat a little. Still, it’s really nice to finally hear Herbie’s music played by a band that isn’t specifically geared to reviving his music. (Omigod! Herbie Nichols is now a mainstream jazz composer? When on earth did that happen?) As it turns out, however, the most advanced composition on this disc is Peter Erskine’s Twelve, a 12-tone row based on Cole Porter’s Easy to Love which actually does sneak through now and again for a few notes at a time. I was really proud of Peplowski for being able to wend his way through this musical maze, here on tenor sax. For the pianist, this music sounds more like home ground, so I’m sure there were some exchanges of ideas going back and forth.

Peplowski returns to his clarinet for some music from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo. I’m not a movie music fan for the most part (I make exceptions for a few jazz-based scores by such fine musicians as Leith Stevens, Franz Waxman, Fred Katz and Eddie Sauter), and at the outset this seems like just another nice waltz tune from a movie, but bassist Wind’s unusual, cello-like lines put me in mind of the kind of things Katz used to do with the Chico Hamilton Quintet, particularly during their time with Paul Horn and Eric Dolphy, and Peplowski’s gorgeous playing of the melody overcame my aversion to the music. The band follows one ballad with another, moving from Herrmann to Manilow, as Peplowski again picks up the tenor sax.

The session ends with one of Fats Waller’s lesser-known songs, Willow Tree, which Mildred Bailey did such a fabulous job on back in 1935. Here the clarinetist is really in his element, swinging joyously while his backup trio seem to be enjoying the ride. This is a fully integrated performance, with everyone contributing a little something—including a surprising arco solo from Wind. (I wish he had hummed along with his playing like Slam Stewart used to do, but you can’t have everything.) This solo so inspires Peplowski when he returns that he really flies, this time sounding a bit more like Artie Shaw than Goodman, including some beautifully-executed triplets. Pianist Asherle is also in fine fettle, playing a particularly swinging single-note solo of fine invention. It’s a nice ride-out to a particularly fertile CD.

Whether you particularly like older jazz styles or not, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the level of invention on this new album. I’ve seldom heard Peplowski so consistently creative!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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