together: James Carter Quintet at the Egg.
Carter Quintet with Miché Braden
Egg, March 5
Tribute shows don’t come any more adventurous than Gardenias
for Lady Day, the program the James Carter Quintet, with special
guest singer Miché (pronounced “Mickey”) Braden, presented
at the Egg’s Swyer Theater on Sunday evening. Instead of trying
to sound like Billie Holiday and a classic swing group, Carter
and band—Gerard Gibbs (piano), Dwight Adams (trumpet), Ralphe
Armstrong (contrabass) and Leonard King (drums)—took the audience
on a musical trip worthy of Holiday’s memory.
They didn’t aim small when it came to choosing tunes to perform
from Holiday’s songbook: “Lover Man,” “Strange Fruit” and
“Fine and Mellow.” “Lover Man” received the classic band-and-singer
treatment, with Carter (on tenor) playing tastefully under
Braden’s vocals. Things got interesting as this kind of pairing
was repeated when Adams took his trumpet solo and pianist
Gibbs took the accompanist role.
The wail that is “Strange Fruit,” with its stark lynching
imagery and austere melody, was the dramatic highlight of
the first set. It’s an easy song to ruin; listen again to
Holiday’s original recording, and you’ll be struck by how
straightforward and unadorned her vocal is. Singer Braden
wisely took a similar approach. Going against expectations,
Carter and company did something daring: As the horror of
the lyric built momentum, so did the band. The playing grew
louder and more intense, eventually drowning out Braden in
a cacophonous blast; the mood was clearly not hysteria, but
rage. It was visually compelling, too, as Braden stood perfectly
still in the center of the stage, the eye of this musical
hurricane. The band’s ability to shift the mood—and bring
the audience with them—for a jaunty version of “You’re a Lucky
Guy” immediately following “Strange Fruit” was impressive,
My favorite of the three, however, was “Fine and Mellow,”
in the second half of the show. This is partially because
it’s such a killer blues. The main reason, however, is that
the band were playing so well—and having so much fun with
it. When bassist Armstrong got halfway through his solo and
reached for the bow to play it classical-style, the others
laughed and called out, “Here comes that bow.”
is best known for the late-1950s TV performance pairing Holiday
with her old friend, tenor giant Lester Young. Here, while
Braden and Carter really don’t sound much like Holiday and
Young, their work together was a joy. If we’re throwing around
classic dead jazz performer references, they sounded more
like some otherworldly pairing of Sidney Bechet and, hmm,
The rest of the program—two sets, as noted—mixed standards
like “More Than You Know” with Carter’s own expansive, searching
compositions. (A song written for his son made for a long,
compelling journey.) The music ranged from Latin to swing,
with drummer King bringing everything from straight jazz to
African rhythms to the mix.
One can’t help but think that Lady Day would have approved.
Ken Peplowski and the Kingdom of Swing Big Band
Theater, March 2
One of the very few young people in the audience approached
the CD sales table during intermission, where singer Kim Liggett
asked what instrument he plays. “What don’t I play!” he responded.
Obviously, she knew the sad truth that the only youthful attendees
would be musicians.
Clarinetist-bandleader Ken Peplowski paid tribute last week
to Benny Goodman’s famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, with
a 13-piece band of crack jazz players who more than fulfilled
the challenge thus presented. >From the familiar opening bars
of “Don’t Be That Way” to the frenetic finish of their final
encore, “Swingtime in the Rockies,” the ensemble reminded
us why that form of jazz called swing dominated the pop charts
in the ’30s and ’40s.
It was an era of star players, with Goodman the most famous,
so his incursion into Manhattan’s hallowed hall was inevitable.
Drummer Gene Krupa and trumpeter Harry James were among the
1938 band members; in Peplowski’s group, drummer Chuck Redd
and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso replicated those roles.
Actually, replicated may not be the best term. Goodman was
no sentimentalist, Peplowski explained, so this event wasn’t
intended to re-create but rather celebrate a thriving style
of jazz. And there’s no question that the songs and arrangements
have the staying power of good classical tunes when played
by musicians like these.
O’Clock Jump,” for instance, was played at the 1938 concert,
but Peplowski used an arrangement more in keeping with Count
Basie’s style, deftly evoked by pianist Johnny Varro. His
solos—and the solos by tenor-sax player Kirby Tassos, trombonist
Matt McDonald and alto saxist Eric Erhardt—were in their own,
contemporary but very much swing-influenced voices. You wouldn’t
have heard these solos in 1938, but they sounded very much
in place today.
Kellso paid tribute to Louis Armstrong with a fat-bodied performance
of “Big Butter and Egg Man,” and the versatile Redd switched
to vibes to salute Lionel Hampton with “Moonglow,” a number
that brought trumpeter David Brown to the drum set, showing
a sweeter style at the traps when compared to Redd’s more
Buddy Rich-like declamations.
A girl singer was a big-band requirement, and Liggett would
have thrived in that era. Breathtakingly gorgeous, she wrapped
her sultry mezzo around “And the Angels Sing,” also featuring
Brown’s deft impersonation of Ziggy Elman in the song’s fast
frahlich section. In Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Humpty-Dumpty
Heart,” she put a quiver in the word “romance” that made me
melt. And she returned in the second half with a peppy “Devil
and the Deep Blue Sea” and a thoroughly persuasive version
of Ray Noble’s “The Touch of Your Lips.”
Talent and versatility were the watchwords, exemplified in
the work of Peplowski, whose clarinet sound has a Goodmanesque
smile and whose solos are breathtakingly virtuosic. We heard
it especially in “Sing Sing Sing,” the inevitable closer to
a concert like this. Goodman played it many different ways,
and Peplowski shortened the orchestral portion to showcase
trumpeter Wes Orr’s stratospheric playing and to give Redd
a chance to really hold forth in a long, dynamic solo that,
were the audience young enough to do so, would have prompted
them to leap to their feet.
This kind of show shouldn’t just be an old-folks assembly:
Peplowski and company proved that the music lives for the
Helsinki, March 4
This was the fourth time that Tin Hat have played Helsinki,
and my first time seeing them. I can only plead ignorance
for this, and will not ever miss them again, barring a really,
really serious act of God.
Classically trained, but lacking any sense of stylistic boundaries
and holding a shared vision that toed the line between freedom
and madness, Tin Hat just plain dazzled a full house during
a two-hour rollercoaster ride of acoustic sound. Most of the
audience spent the evening leaning forward, totally sucked
in and barely breathing; the room was pin-drop quiet the whole
What does one say about a group of musicians who whiz from
the likes of Haydn to Phillip Glass to Astor Piazzolla, often
in a few bars? Who play two hours of rigorously composed music,
interspersed with wild flights of improvisation, with no sheet
music, and no perceptible leader? Who play so softly you can
often hear your own heart beat, but with the force and deliberateness
of a marching band?
Pieces tended to be constructed around Mark Orton’s nylon
string guitar; occasionally he would play a dobro, and the
sizzle of the slide provided the gutteral swagger of Americana.
Ben Goldberg played woodwinds, and mostly the beguilingly
sonorous contralto clarinet, adding Eastern European and bop-jazz
accents. Goldberg often played in synch with Tom Waits sideman
Ara Anderson’s tiny pump organ; Anderson also played percussion,
including glockenspiel and tearing and crumpling paper, along
with trumpet, with which he changed the colors of the room
repeatedly. Anderson used a drum as a resonator/mute for his
horn; his various shenanigans made the music extremely tactile,
and pleasurably so.
Violinist-fiddler Carla Kihlstedt was the closest thing to
a focal point, and she combined conservatory technique and
tone with a constant willingness to step outside and use her
instrument to punctuate whatever else was going on with guerrilla
scratches and swoops.
The group played several new pieces from a soon-to-be recorded
disc influenced by the writings and artwork of eccentric Polish
artist Bruno Schwarz. One can only hope they get the recording
finished quickly and come back to the region. Again and again.