Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra reanimates forgotten jazz | Music Feature | Indy Week
Pin It

Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra reanimates forgotten jazz 

Charlie Johnson's Paradise Orchestra. McKinney's Cotton Pickers. Reginald Foresythe and his New Music: They made some of the hottest jazz ever, right? You've never heard of them?

"People forget that this was popular music then," says trumpeter and arranger Brian Carpenter. "This was what brought people out to dance halls. This was Lady Gaga circa 1926."

Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra attempts to reinsert the stories of these little-known 1920s and 1930s ensembles into the wider jazz storybook. But their shows aren't period pieces. When the nine-piece ensemble plays Motorco twice this week, there will not only be a dance floor but also a free, no-shame swing dance lesson an hour before the show.

Think about how the story of jazz is told. Grandpappy Musicology puts you on his knee and explains that, in dim New Orleans and St. Louis dance halls, African syncopation corrupted European marches into ragtime. After migrating north and east, members of big bands smoothed this music into swing for white audiences. Bebop cats repurposed swing's structure as a platform for improvisational bravado.

Ol' grandpa's forgotten some of the story's best characters, says Carpenter. But for the Ghost Train Orchestra, Carpenter crafts new arrangements of transitional, almost-lost jazz masterpieces. His vibrant chamber jazz fills the gaps between rag, swing and bop.

The Ghost Train Orchestra's first album, Hothouse Stomp, dusted off late Jazz Age dance hall music from Chicago and Harlem. Horns zip and blurt, prefiguring Bird and Dizzy, while the tuba bounces against the rest of the band with a rough, ragtime thump. The tunes are quick, as the 78 rpm records to which they were recorded could hold only about three minutes on each side.

So why didn't Charlie Johnson jump the radio waves and go mainstream? Why did we get the cleaned-up version with Benny Goodman?

"The Great Depression: It's as simple as that," Carpenter explains with a sigh. "You had Black Friday in 1929 and suddenly all the work dried up."

The stock market crash formed a perfect storm with Chicago's 1929 Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, wiping small dance halls off the map. Big bands like Goodman's and Duke Ellington's survived with standing gigs at places like the Cotton Club.

Connecting this Prohibition-era music to their current exhibition of Archibald Motley's paintings, Duke's Nasher Museum of Art has lent support to this Duke Performances presentation. Motley's expressionistic scenes of Jazz Age nightlife recall some of these short-lived bands, lending an atmospheric sense to the music.

On their new Book of Rhapsodies, the Ghost Train pulls forward in time. Although the composers' names might still be unfamiliar, some of this late-1930s music won't sound foreign. Raymond Scott's arrangements were a common backdrop to anvils falling on Wile E. Coyote's head and Bugs Bunny foiling Elmer Fudd in classic Looney Tunes.

"You hear something like that, and it sounds like New Music. It sounds like somebody composed it yesterday," Carpenter says, comparing it to the dense musical collage and quotation coming out of Brooklyn these days. Louis Singer's "Beethoven Riffs On" patches klezmer phrases into a symphonic quilt. Scott's constantly changing "Celebration on the Planet Mars" could bring Sun Ra back from the dead.

Carpenter's arrangements—or reimaginings, as he sometimes calls them—channel the original spirit of the work. His virtuosic band relishes playing modern arrangements of music otherwise lost to attics and archives.

"I'm the weakest player in the band, and that's by design," Carpenter jokes.

What he should say is: Eat a light dinner, and wear your dancing shoes, because this band can go, even if you can't spot the tune.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Late delivery"

  • Band performs at Motorco April 4 and 5

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Music Feature



Twitter Activity

Most Recent Comments

Awesome man of God! In our third week of revival,and he's now a part of our church! We love the …

by Sherra on Young bluesman Slick Ballinger turns to the gospel; keeps promises to family (Music Feature)

I met Bill Ferris when I was an undergrad at Ole Miss.(Univ. of Mississippi, Oxford.) I had met James Son …

by Jupitor on For six decades, folklorist Bill Ferris has broken some of the country's biggest racial barriers. Now, he's sharing the South's story with the world (Music Feature)

Also, someone said they didn't know Kelly but knew "Kelly's wife..." For the record, Kelly was never married-to anyone at …

by Chuck Harrell on Cry of Love vocalist Kelly Holland died depressed, but not alone (Music Feature)

I thought it best not to respond to comments here because I contributed to the piece by being interviewed. After …

by Chuck Harrell on Cry of Love vocalist Kelly Holland died depressed, but not alone (Music Feature)

wow. That's amazing. I saw them a few years ago as the boyfriends and I predicted she would have an …

by Bluetrain on With Blue Cactus, Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez Embrace the Gaudy Trappings and Heavyweight Emotion of Classic Country Music (Music Feature)

Comments

Awesome man of God! In our third week of revival,and he's now a part of our church! We love the …

by Sherra on Young bluesman Slick Ballinger turns to the gospel; keeps promises to family (Music Feature)

I met Bill Ferris when I was an undergrad at Ole Miss.(Univ. of Mississippi, Oxford.) I had met James Son …

by Jupitor on For six decades, folklorist Bill Ferris has broken some of the country's biggest racial barriers. Now, he's sharing the South's story with the world (Music Feature)

Most Read

No recently-read stories.

Visit the archives…

© 2017 Indy Week • 201 W. Main St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation