Brian Carpenter: Eclectic Jazz, Rooted In Americana Singer-songwriter Brian Carpenter has cited places like Coney Island and the Florida Panhandle as inspiration for his work. On his latest album, Hothouse Stomp, Carpenter musically travels back to the jazz scene in 1920s Harlem and Chicago.
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Brian Carpenter: Eclectic Jazz, Rooted In Americana

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Brian Carpenter: Eclectic Jazz, Rooted In Americana

Brian Carpenter: Eclectic Jazz, Rooted In Americana

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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My guest, trumpeter, composer and arranger Brian Carpenter is the leader of the Ghost Train Orchestra. Their new album, "Hothouse Stomp," reinterprets music of 1920s Chicago and Harlem, music associated with four bands: Charlie Johnson's Paradise Orchestra, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Tiny Parham and His Musicians and Fess Williams' Royal Flush Orchestra. Carpenter put together the band in 2006 after he was asked to be the musical director of an event marking the 90th anniversary of the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Massachusetts. Since then, the band has performed regularly in New York. Carpenter also leads the band Beat Circus, which records original music inspired by blues, folk, spirituals, rock and circus music.

Let's start with a song co-written by Don Redman and Charlie Johnson.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Brian Carpenter, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what do you love about music of this period, of the 1920s?

Mr. BRIAN CARPENTER (Musician, Composer, Arranger): Well, the interesting thing about this is we're talking about a very short period of time here in America, between 1926 and 1932 in New York and Chicago, when the bands were made up of nine to 10 people. So they hadn't yet evolved into the 16-piece big bands we know today, but they were small enough that they kept that visceral, bluesy sort of sexual energy of early New Orleans jazz, which were mostly small groups.

But these bands, they were big enough - they had a reed section, sometimes they had a string section - that they could get more sophisticated in terms of the arrangements, but they weren't so big that they lost that, you know, that crude, bluesy thing you get with the small bands. So it can be both sophisticated and unsophisticated at the same time.

GROSS: So on your new album, "Hothouse Stomp," you have music of bands from Chicago and from Harlem from the late 20s and early 30s. Is there a difference in the Harlem and Chicago sound?

Mr. CARPENTER: There is a difference. In Chicago, all the endings are quick. You know, they're usually bop, bop, bop, you know. And you had the violin. In Harlem, there's usually not many violins or violas, and the endings are drawn out. You know, they're usually long, drawn-out endings. So there's a difference there in not only instrumentation, but also the way that the composers wrote for the bands.

GROSS: Now you have one foot in the - you have several feet, actually...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I was going to say you have one foot in the avant-garde and one foot in early jazz. But you have a foot in folk music. You have several feet. But do you see a connection between the kind of avant-garde jazz that you like and the early jazz that you play on your new Ghost Train Orchestra album?

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, I think there is a connection there, because, you know, having played both of it live, what you're trying to get to is you're trying to get to this visceral thing where there's very little intellectual component to it. So you play this music enough, and it's immediately accessible to people because it's just so bluesy and it's very vocal. You know, even if they're instrumental pieces, it's just a very vocal kind of music. And with experimental music, free jazz in particular, if you listen to Albert Ayler -say, of 1960s - you know, he's trying to get to the same thing. He's trying to get to this visceral - he's trying to transport you.

GROSS: I want to, in a minute, play what is perhaps my favorite track on the album "Voodoo," which was composed by Tiny Parham, who recorded it with his band. So tell us who Tiny Parham was.

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, Tiny Parham was an important figure in late 1920s Chicago. And he had a band that played the vaudeville houses. And he was working in the Savoy Ballroom, which was next to the Regal Theater. These were both in one building.

And Tiny Parham started playing organ in theater to film, and basically formed this band to play in the vaudeville houses. So, you know, you'd have a chorus line women come out, and you'd have comedians come out and you'd have burlesque acts and you'd have all these things. And Tiny Parham would be the band that would play the music between these acts and, in some cases, during the acts. And so that's why these pieces are so short, because it's a vaudeville show. You're trying to get from act to act, right?

So Tiny Parham, his music doesn't sound like anything else. I mean, it's very eccentric. It's very idiosyncratic. You know, you hear - he's got the violin in there, and he's got these slow, lumbering brass lines and these haunting reed lines. Some of it's really creepy, you know. And it's also just very beautiful.

And, you know, when I discovered Tiny Parham, I just - I fell in love with him. You know, there's nothing that really sounds like that.

GROSS: I love this piece. It's got everything. It has this real, like, exotic sound. Your trumpet playing is great on it. It has musical saw, which sounds kind of sermon-like. It has, like, woodblocks. There's this, like, group vocal that the band does, where they're kind of like moaning in unison.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Then there's, like, this like this avant-garde saxophone solo toward the end that adds to the delirium of the piece.

So this is "Voodoo," the Tiny Parham composition from the Brian Carpenter Ghost Train Orchestra new album "Hothouse Stomp," which features the music of 1920s Chicago and Harlem. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Voodoo")

GROSS: That was "Voodoo," the Tiny Parham composition from - was this, like, 1928 or something?

Mr. CARPENTER: 1928, '29. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Yeah. As interpreted by the Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra. And my guest is Brian Carpenter, and the whole "Hothouse Stomp" album that they've just put out features music of the 1920s Chicago and Harlem.

Let's take a short break, here, then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is trumpeter, composer and arranger Brian Carpenter. His band Ghost Train Orchestra has a new CD called "Hothouse Stomp," featuring music of the 1920s Harlem and Chicago. Carpenter also leads the band Beat Circus.

So in addition to playing jazz - and we've been talking about your jazz playing - you also play circus music and folk-based music. So I want to get to some other aspects of your musical life. You've recorded two albums in a trilogy. It's your "Weird American Gothic" trilogy. One album is inspired by Southern folk and gospel. One is inspired by Dreamland, which was part of the Coney Island amusement park, and this part burned down in 1911. So how did you learn about Dreamland, and why did you want to do an album of music inspired by that?

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, the whole idea behind the trilogy was to take American mythologies and sort of use them as a framework for three records. And the band Beat Circus, it's very narrative and stylized. And so Dreamland was a natural choice, because the American circus is filled with stories, fact or fiction. And Dreamland is a real place that opened in 1904 in Coney Island and burned down in a devastating fire in 1911. And some of the stories are just outrageous. And so I wrote this little song cycle based on the characters that hung around Dreamland, and based on some of the events that happened at Dreamland.

GROSS: Well, I want to play something called "Coney Island Creepshow," and you actually have, like, a freak-show, carnival-barker type of vocal in this. Would you talk about writing the song?

Mr. CARPENTER: Sure. That's DJ Hazard up front as the outside talker. And it's funny you said barker, because one of the people that recorded on this is Todd Robbins, who was - worked at Coney Island as the sideshow outside talker for many years. And he said, no. You don't call it a carnival barker. You know, that's what you call a dog. You don't - that's like really defamatory. I said I didn't, you know, I didn't know that, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARPENTER: He said no, you call it in outside talker. So I said okay, fine. Outside talker then. And so that's what I wrote in the liner notes, outside talker. So, you know, his job is to try to pull people in, right. I mean, his job is to try to pull people into the ride and get them to pay money for the event. So that's the inspiration for the whole opening.

GROSS: Okay. So you are outside talker number two on this. So you're the second voice that we hear?

Mr. CARPENTER: I'm number two or number three. Yeah. I don't remember which one.

GROSS: Okay. Okay. And you're also playing slide trumpet.

Mr. CARPENTER: Yes. I played the slide trumpet on that.

GROSS: Okay. So here we go, "Coney Island Creepshow," composed by my guest Brian Carpenter, and this is from his album "Dreamland," with his band Beat Circus.

(Soundbite of song, "Coney Island Creepshow")

DJ HAZARD (Outside talker): Brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, dogs, where there the bizarre presents to you tonight, the world's largest congregation of human oddities - living, breathing monstrosities.

(Soundbite of music)

DJ HAZARD: That's right. We didn't ask to be brought into this world or put into the world that came, guaranteed to be alive or your money back. What in the world are you waiting for? Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, to the Coney Island Creepshow.

Mr. CARPENTER: A prince who has no legs or arms, here, an elephant smokes his own cigars. (unintelligible)

DJ HAZARD: Three dollars, please, for the freak show.

Unidentified Group: (Vocalizing)

DJ HAZARD: Something's (unintelligible).

Mr. CARPENTER: And covered with some bunny hair.

DJ HAZARD: Bernie(ph) the half-man has no life.

Mr. CARPENTER: (unintelligible)

DJ HAZARD: Three dollars, three for the freak show.

Unidentified Group: (Vocalizing)

GROSS: That's the band Beat Circus from their album "Dreamland," one of the bands led by my guest Brian Carpenter.

Did you play in school bands when you were growing up, and did you hear any connection between what you played in those school bands and what you compose now?

Mr. CARPENTER: You know, I wasn't exposed to much jazz until high school and -when my band teacher got me excited about big band music. You know, he was playing me music from the '70s, like Stan Kenton and Don Ellis. And we even tried to play some of that music, which is crazy. It was a very progressive high school jazz band.

So I think that got me interested in jazz. And then when I got into college, you know, when you sort of leave to college, you know, you want to forget, you want to rebel from your parents. You want to kind of forget everything you learned.

And so I kind of immediately went to outsider music, where I would go to the record stores and say, you know, what's the most out thing you have in here? You know, and they'd say, oh, well, there's this Albert Ayler record, "Spiritual Unity." Nobody wants to buy that. I said that's the record for me, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And now you're directing a documentary on Albert Ayler.

Mr. CARPENTER: Yeah, that started a while ago. I put that on the shelf. But yeah, I have been working on that off and on.

GROSS: So what...

Mr. CARPENTER: That's what brought me to Boston, as a matter of fact.

GROSS: Where you live now. So what else did you get that way in record stores?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, what else did I buy?

GROSS: By asking for the weirdest thing that they had...

Mr. CARPENTER: I got "Trout Mask Replica," of course, Captain Beefheart.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CARPENTER: And sometimes I would get an Ornette Coleman record, that "Free Jazz" record, you know, which is like two bands on either channel. And so all of the stuff was great. You know, and the rest the people that I was going to college with were listening to, you know, grunge music, which I was listening, too, and Jane's Addiction. I liked that stuff, too, but that wasn't weird enough for me. You know, I really just wanted to - I had a hankering for underground music.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CARPENTER: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Brian Carpenter leads the bands Beat Circus and Ghost Train Orchestra. Ghost Train Orchestra's new CD is called "Hothouse Stomp: The Music of 1920s Chicago and Harlem." You can hear two tracks from it, including "Voodoo," the complete track that we featured, on our website:

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