The Ghost Train Orchestra Rolls Along

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BOOK OF RHAPSODIES Vol. II / SCOTT: Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxicabs. HERZON-LANG: Hare and the Hounds. FORESYTHE: A Hymn to Darkness: I. Deep Forest; II. Lament for Congo. Garden of Weed. HERZON-ANDRE: Pedigree on a Pomander Walk. WILDER: Walking Home in Spring. A Little Girl Grows Up. Kindergarten Flower Pageant.* The House Detective Registers. M. GOULD: Deserted Ballroom. CHOPIN: Fantasie-Impromptu / Ghost Train Orchestra: Brian Carpenter, tpt/voc/tape loops/toy pno; Dennis Lichtman, cl; Ben Kono, a-sax/fl; Peter Cancura, t-sax/a-sax/cl; Mazz Swift, vln/voc; Evan Price, vln; Emily Bookwalter, vla; Curtis Hasselbring, tbn; *Rob Reich, acc; Ron Caswell, tuba; Avi Bortnick, gtr; Michael Bates, bs; Rob Garcia, dm; Aubrey Johnson, sop; Katie Seiler, mezzo-sop; Tomas Cruz, ten; Brian Carpenter, bar; Joe Chappel, bs; Boston City Singers Cambridge Children’s Chorus / Accurate Records

This is the second CD by the Ghost Train Orchestra to bear the title, Book of Rhapsodies, and is due for release on October 20. The first came out in 2013 and, like this one, focuses on new arrangements of “tone poems and chamber music for orchestra and choir” as played by groups of the 1930s and ‘40s: Reginald Foresythe and his New Music, the Raymond Scott Quintette, the John Kirby Sextet, the Alec Wilder Octette and the Hal Herzon Septet. I am intimately familiar with the music of four of these; only the Hal Herzon Septet has escaped my notice, and since I cannot find a recording or even a reference to a recording online I must assume that this group fell through the cracks of time and never made a return Probably the band’s leader, Brian Carpenter, found some old Herzon 78s, was intrigued, and decided to throw them into the mixture.

What I find ironic about the other groups, however, is that despite their eccentric mixture of jazz with classical style and/or form, they have been mostly derided or ignore through the years. Foresythe was a gay black man from England who came to the United States around 1933 and made a good impression on Earl Hines, who used his Deep Forest as his theme song for years; Louis Armstrong, who also recorded one of his tunes; and Paul Whiteman, who recorded several of them such as The Duke Insists and Serenade to a Wealthy Widow (the latter also “covered” by Fats Waller). A jolly but highly addicted alcoholic, Foresythe stayed in Harlem with Duke Ellington for some time but eventually drifted back to the U.K. where his delicate but sad-sounding tunes eventually fell out of favor. He tried to revive his career after World War II but had little success, eventually dying of alcoholism in the late 1950s. In recent decades, his music was often played by the late Willem Brueker and his Kollektief, but following Breuker’s death went into hibernation again.

Both the Scott Quintette and Kirby Sextet came in for some scathing criticism from Gunther Schuller in his book The Swing Era for being “pretentious” and overly cute, but each of these two groups had an entirely different style. Scott, the brother of society bandleader Mark Warnow, had an active and fertile mechanical mind and thus saw music in terms of rapidly swirling passages with contrasting themes in different tempos and/or keys. In the late 1930s his music was extraordinarily popular among schoolmarms who otherwise wouldn’t have listened to a swing band if you put a gun to their heads. Scott came up with a large number of quirky tunes with equally quirky titles, of which the best known is Powerhouse because it made its way into Warner Brothers cartoons. I’ve always gotten a kick out of Scott’s music because it’s so strange that it makes you laugh, but of course would never consider him a true jazz musician because he allowed no improvised solos in his records despite using some of the best studio jazz musicians of his time. Bassist John Kirby, on the other hand, came up with an idea for a jazz sextet that was voiced like a small orchestra, played fast, fleet arrangements of both popular tunes and a large group of original compositions, and featured the dazzling solos of trumpeter Charlie Shavers, clarinetist Buster Bailey, alto saxist Russell Procope and pianist Billy Kyle. Shavers later went on to play with Tommy Dorsey and then had a fine solo career for about 20 years, Procope spent roughly two decades in the sax section of the Duke Ellington band, and Kyle went on to play with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, but by and large the Kirby Sextet was damaged by the draft (both Shavers and Procope went into the service) and when it re-formed after the war its vogue was over.

The Alec Wilder Octet, on the other hand, gained surprising respect from both musicians and critics (possibly because Mitch Miller played oboe in it), though his music walked a fine line between art and schlock. A decent composer, Wilder wrote some great standards that remain in the repertoire of jazz bands like I’ll Be Around, Trouble is a Man and Who Can I Turn To?, but also wrote some exquisite classically-influenced arrangements for singer Mildred Bailey in the late 1930s (Easy to Love, Darn That Dream, Hold On and All the Things You Are) in addition to the cutely-titled pieces by his Octet (Kindergarten Flower Pageant, The House Detective Registers, Dance Man Buys a Farm, etc.) which are the ones taken seriously by many listeners. I like some of Wilder’s music but find that a few of the Octet pieces go a long way.

For some readers this may be too much information, but I think it important to bring all this up before assessing Carpenter’s work on these same tunes. In Vol. 1 the pieces selected were Foresythe’s Volcanic (Eruption for Orchestra), Kirby’s Charlie’s Prelude, Beethoven Riffs On and Dawn on the Desert, Scott’s At An Arabian House Party, Revolt of the Yes Men, The Happy Farmer and Celebration on the Planet Mars and Wilder’s Dance Man Buys a Farm, It’s Silk Feel It!, Children Met the Train and Her Old Man Was (at Times) Suspicious. Hal Herzon was apparently not yet discovered.

Typical of Carpenter’s approach is his re-imagining of Raymond Scott’s wacky (well, all of his music was wacky!) Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxicabs, compressed into a mere 1:53 and featuring atonal harmonies along with a pungent small-band sound pitting clarinet against tuba. But if you think this is weird, wait ‘til you hear Hal Herzon’s Hare and the Hounds, a scattergunned piece in which little tunes chase each other across the soundscape like Elmer Fudd running after Bugs Bunny. This one will have you laughing, it’s just so funny.

We take a step back from the manic music of Scott and Herzon for Part 1 of Foresythe’s “Hymn to Darkness,” Deep Forest. The Ghost Train band, like Earl Hines’ orchestra, dispenses with the single chorus of lyrics that Foresythe wrote into the original, but here Carpenter throws in the high, soaring, wordless soprano of Aubrey Johnson along with the “Book of Rhapsodies Adult Choir.” An excellent alto sax solo (not sure if it’s by Kono or Cancura) is a highlight. Herzon makes a reappearance with his Pedigree on a Pomander Walk, another Ray Scott-styled piece of cartoon music, again played in wacky-cracks style—except this time, the Adult Choir makes a reappearance singing the alternating theme towards the end.

Alec Wilder makes his first appearance with Walking Home in Spring. Here I felt that the Ghost Train Orchestra modified the original a little too much towards their own orchestration. This is not so much a criticism as a matter of personal taste. I just always felt that the Wilder pieces worked the way they did because they were scored for a wind octet. Rescoring them for trumpet, trombone, tuba, violin, clarinet etc. is very clever, and I did like the clarinet and pizzicato violin passage in the middle very much, but in the end I think it loses some of what made Wilder Wilder, if you know what I mean. Nonetheless, the performance is impeccable, and Mazz Swift’s Ray Nance-like violin solo is definitely a highlight.

By contrast, I really enjoyed Carpenter’s re-imagining of Deserted Ballroom, a Morton Gould piece with which I was previously unfamiliar. One of the reasons his arrangement works is that he maintains the underlying staccato rhythms and gets into the surreal, often crazy-sounding top lines. The Adult Choir also sings briefly on this one, and there’s a great electric guitar solo by Avi Bortnick. (In case you didn’t think electric guitars were around in the 1930s, think again. Even before Charlie Christian hit the Benny Goodman band, Eddie Durham was playing electric guitar with Count Basie back in 1937-38.) I also really liked Carpenter’s way of expanding this tune to fill five and a half minutes without being repetitive or uninteresting. A wild, “outside”-type sax coda ends it.

I liked the arrangement of A Little Girl Grows Up even though it tended towards the old Ray Conniff sound of the 1950s, the wordless-voices-with-orchestra style he pioneered (remember the ‘Swonderful album?) before chucking it in favor of the Ray Conniff Singers in the 1960s. The leader plays an interesting trumpet solo on this one over a repeated clarinet-alto sax riff in the middle, and Hasselbring contributes a nice chorus on trombone towards the end.

Despite the fact that later generations of jazz critics dumped on the John Kirby Sextet, one even calling them “race traitors” because their music wasn’t “black” enough, musicians in their day absolutely adored them. They were thought of with awe and inspired a great many groups, not least of which was Fats Waller and his Rhythm, which adopted a Kirby-like sound for many of its later (1941-42) recordings. Carpenter does a nice job of recalling their brilliant virtuosity by retaining the clarinet-alto sax duos and once in a while throwing in a muted trumpet to make it a trio (Shavers normally played muted with the Sextet). A sidelight: in 1940, shortly before he left New York for California, Jelly Roll Morton happened upon the Kirby Sextet playing on 52nd Street and fell in love with the band, even sitting in for one set. The manager offered him a job as intermission pianist, but Morton was too proud to accept it.

Lyrics are added to Wilder’s Kindergarten Flower Pageant, but alas the children’s choir’s diction is so poor I couldn’t make out a single word of it. Maybe they were singing in Esperanto. I couldn’t tell. This arrangement, by and large, was less successful that A Little Girl Grows Up.

I was particularly interested to hear the “Hymn to Darkness Part 2,” Lament for Congo, because it’s one of the few Foresythe tunes I had never heard. This is played in a sort of funky clarinets-over-tom-toms style, not too dissimilar from Artie Shaw’s Serenade to a Savage, but the rhythm relaxes and the texture shifts considerably in the middle section. Bortnick’s guitar dominates the solo space, although Carpenter gets a few licks in on trumpet. Nice counterpoint in the last chorus, too.

Scott’s The House Detective Registers is played less tongue-in-cheek than usual, with the band reveling in the sort of high-pitched scoring (clarinets and muted trumpet) that Scott himself used. Swift plays a violin solo that almost sounds like something Carroll Hubbard might have swung out on one of the Lee O’Daniel Hillbilly Boys records of the late ‘30s. There’s another vocal on this one, by one of the adults, but the lyrics are again indistinguishable. A nice chorus follows, with the guitar playing a brilliant counterpoint behind the solo clarinet.

This Book of Rhapsodies wraps up with Foresythe’s Garden of Weed, one of his more popular pieces and more controversial titles, recorded at a slow pace by his own band and at a slightly brisker one by Lew Stone’s Monseigneur Band. The Ghost Train orchestra takes it even a shade slower than Foresythe himself, laying into its “coochy” feeling with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Nice clarinet and alto solos spice up the second half of the performance.

If I may make a suggestion for Carpenter’s next album, please rediscover the wonderful wind arrangements of jazz tunes by Paul Laval (later Lavalle) and his Woodwindy Ten from the early-1940s radio program, The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. These are peerless examples of early cool jazz arrangements of older tunes that desperately need revival.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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2 thoughts on “The Ghost Train Orchestra Rolls Along

  1. antonio says:

    interesting article, and I will definitely read your book, altough for my taste Alec Wilder’s octets are probably my favorite music ever, especially the slow ones, like Seldom the sun, Such a tender night, They needed no words, Footnote to a summer love, gems full of a warmth and depth that goes well beyond the novelty of many pieces in the genre.
    Never heard of Laval before, I’m curious to hear him (and same for Herzon). I think it would be interesting to hear the GTO playing also some octet of George Barnes.

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    • Paul Laval (born Joseph Usifer) led the “Woodwindy Ten” on the NBC radio program, “The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street,” for years (check out my article on the show). He later amended his new last name to be spelled Lavalle, after which he spent close to 30 years as director of the Cities Service Band of America, playing marches. Wrote some original pieces as well, such as “Ten Little Indians,” for the radio show.

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