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Swinging together: James Carter Quintet at the Egg.

photo:Chris Shields

Something for Billie
By Shawn Stone

James Carter Quintet with Miché Braden

The 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, too.

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.”

“Mellow” 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, Betty Carter.

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.

Something for Benny

Ken Peplowski and the Kingdom of Swing Big Band

Proctor’s 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.

“One 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 ages.

—B.A. Nilsson

That Was Something

Tin Hat

Club 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 night.

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.

—Paul Rapp

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