fb-pixel Skip to main content
Scene & Heard

Ghost Train Orchestra delivers an unclassifable mix

Brian Carpenter brings his 11-piece Ghost Train Orchestra band plus a six-voice choir to Scullers in April.Neal Santos

There are probably very few musicians for whom Dirty Projectors, Alec Wilder, and the Swingle Singers are common reference points. But that’s how Brian Carpenter rolls.

All of these artists figure into the current CD by Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra, “Book of Rhapsodies.” The CD represents Carpenter’s “re-imagining” of music by Wilder, Raymond Scott, Reginald Foresythe, and the John Kirby Sextet — none of them household names, despite various revivals and periods of fame for each. The GTO, which is 11 pieces plus, in this case, a six-voice choir, plays Scullers on April 9.

Carpenter, 42, is drawn to music that falls between genres. The GTO’s last CD, “Hothouse Stomp,” was subtitled “The Music of 1920s Chicago and Harlem” — that is, after New Orleans but before what would become known as the swing era. Another of his projects, the Beat Circus, began as an exploration of, well, circus music, but has gone on to encompass a Southern-gothic folk aesthetic. Brian Carpenter & the Confessions, meanwhile, play original roots rock.

The music on the new CD is sometimes referred to as “chamber jazz,” but it’s really unclassifiable. Wilder is best remembered (if at all) as a songwriter (“I'll Be Around,” “While We’re Young”); Kirby was a swing bassist whose band mashed up classical themes and jazz (“Mr. Haydn Gets Hip”); Foresythe was a British pianist/composer who had worked with Kirby and Benny Goodman and had arranged for Duke Ellington; Scott was a successful studio musician whose popular works for his six-piece Quintette are most recognizable from their use in Warner Bros. cartoons. (The most noteworthy previous revival of Scott and Kirby’s work was on Don Byron’s 1996 “Bug Music.”)


Carpenter was drawn to the pieces’ common idiosyncrasies — the melding of genres, the odd structures (including the yoking of unrelated melodies), and unusual instrumentation. Wilder’s octets, for example, were scored for harpsichord, oboe, flute, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet, bass, and drums. And there were the strange titles: Foresythe’s “Revolt of the Yes Men,” Scott’s “Celebration on the Planet Mars,” Wilder’s “Her Old Man Was (at Times) Suspicious.”


For his process, Carpenter took as his model Dirty Projectors’ “Rise Above,” in which that band’s David Longstreth tried to re-imagine Black Flag’s “Damaged” album based only on the lyrics and his decade-plus memory of the music. What’s more, instead of Black Flag’s single lead singer (Henry Rollins), Longstreth arranged the vocals for himself, Amber Coffman, and Susanna Waiche.

“It doesn’t sound anything like the original,” says Carpenter of “Rise Above.” “But it’s also incredible. Based on his vague memory, what he came up with is insanely great.”

So Carpenter listened to the original 78s, took some bare-bone transcriptions of main melody lines and voicings (there were no lyrics, after all), and then put the records away and didn’t begin writing arrangements until two months later. Among other alterations, he arranged Wilder’s harpsichord parts for Avi Bortnick’s electric guitar. (Bortnick also brings surf-guitar tremolo to Scott’s “At an Arabian House Party” and heavy blues-rock to “Celebration on the Planet Mars.”)

And then there are the vocals.

Listening to the original recordings, Carpenter found himself singing along. “I wondered, ‘Why am I singing along to these weird pieces?’ But I realized Alec Wilder had such a gift for melody. And then I realized, ‘Oh my god, if you took the instruments and changed them to voices, it would sound like the Swingle Singers.’ ”


And that’s how the sound of that particular ’60-’70s French a cappella vocal group (known for their jazz-vocal arrangements of Bach) became a defining feature of “Book of Rhapsodies.”

There are other felicities and oddities throughout the CD, which flows with a combination of refined swing, melodic sophistication, sparkling orchestral color, and humor. The Kirby band’s “Beethoven Riffs On” offers an unusually peppy rendition of the stately theme from the second movement of the Seventh Symphony and breaks for a beautiful brass chorale. Banjoist Brandon Seabrook injects comic “wrong note” punctuation into his virtuoso solo on Scott’s “The Happy Farmer,” and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring enters as a broad-shouldered jealous husband on “Her Old Man Was (at Times) Suspicious.”

Music historian and Raymond Scott specialist Irwin Chusid (whose programming on Jersey City’s WFMU-FM inspired Carpenter) thinks that Carpenter’s reinvention has been a boon. “When people re-create the music,” Chusid says, “I’m less excited than when they make something new. Brian took the charts and used them as a reference, a starting point. When I saw the band for the first time [in New York], I was blown away.”

Carpenter, for his part, hopes that his arrangements — with scrambled anachronistic references like those Swingle-esque vocals — will rescue the pieces from nostalgia.

“If you listen to ‘Her Old Man Was (At Times) Suspicious’ and ‘Celebration on the Planet Mars’ without any context, titles, or band names,” he says, “you would think it was new music. The end of ‘Her Old Man Was (At Times) Suspicious’ sounds like a Steve Reich piece or something. There’s nothing remotely old-time about it.”


Bonus Tracks

The focus of Berklee’s “State of Jazz Composition” symposium and concert series (April 22-27) may be, as its title says, composition, but it’s as close to a “state of jazz” symposium as we’re likely to get. Performers and panelists include Geri Allen, Terence Blanchard, Vijay Iyer, Tania Léon, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Maria Schneider, with a keynote address to be delivered by Blue Note Records president Don Was (April 24). All events are open to the public, including many free performances. (Registration and full schedule at www
. . . Guitarist Juanito Pascual brings his New Flamenco Trio along with dancer Auxi Fernández to Sanders Theatre tonight (March 28) while Grace Kelly is at Scullers. April 2, meanwhile, gives us a perfect storm of tough choices: Ran Blake in a solo piano performance at the Regattabar, Christian Scott band guitarist Matthew
at Berklee's Cafe 939, and violinist Marissa Licata at Scullers.

Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick4@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.