Too many repertory bands refuse to blow the dust off of the music that they unearth, resulting in the sonic equivalent of that dank, musty odor that infests a crowded antique shop. In the misguided name of “respect,” these bands place the music of the past under glass, calcifying it to the point where a modern listener wonders what ever attracted anyone to it in the first place.
That’s what makes the Ghost Train Orchestra so surprising. There’s nothing antiquated about this ensemble, which specializes in obscure music from the 1920s and ‘30s. True, the approach that bandleader Brian Carpenter brings to the material is a few steps shy of faithful – surely that distorted electronic howl didn’t cut through “Dawn on the Desert” when it was performed in a 1930s ballroom, and it’s unlikely that the Reginald Foresythe band ever erupted in quite the same way that the Ghost Train Orchestra does on “Volcanic.” But Carpenter respects the intent of this music by dragging it full-blooded into the modern day.
“There are bands that recreate the music of this era very well,” Carpenter says. “So I felt like there was no need to do that. A lot of people think this is a novelty band or a retro band, but that’s really not what this is. This is more about reimagining the pieces.”
Carpenter is no stranger to this sort of repurposing of the past. His long-running band Beat Circus emerged from the same fantastic Victorian midway that spawned some of Tom Waits’ rogues gallery, and the band’s next project is a stage musical based onThe Barbary Coast, Herbert Asbury’s book about Gold Rush-era San Francisco, full of stories that Carpenter eagerly refers to as “lurid and depraved.”
Each of Ghost Train Orchestra’s two albums will be featured in its own set on Saturday at the Annenberg Center. Carpenter is also preparing music for the ensemble’s third CD, which will return to 1920s Chicago and Harlem, but with the addition of Arcade Fire and Bon Iver saxophonist Colin Stetson to the band. He also leads the Boston band The Confessions and produces a number of radio shows, including four-hour programs on saxophonist Albert Ayler and a study of sound design in horror films.
Ghost Train Orchestra was born in 2006, when Carpenter was enlisted by Heather Kuhn, a Beat Circus fan who was also a programmer at the historic Regent Theater in Arlington, Massachusetts. She was looking for a musical director for the former vaudeville venue, which was about to celebrate its 90th anniversary. Carpenter began to survey the musical landscape of the era, turning up little-known pieces from Chicago and Harlem bands like Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Tiny Parham and his Musicians, and Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orchestra.
“This music was mostly for nine people: trumpet, trombone, three reeds, tuba, banjo, drums, and violin,” Carpenter recalls. “I thought that was kind of interesting, so I wondered if I could put a band together to do that. I was really drawn to the music because it was so edgy but also so sophisticated. It was somewhere between the New Orleans small group stuff and the big band era that would come later. We started playing some shows, and it was actually kind of surprising how great it was.”
The ensemble’s debut CD, Hothouse Stomp, was released in 2010 to great acclaim. Much of the success of the band is due to its musicians, a host of boundary-blurring New York City jazz players who could bring equal parts virtuosity and irreverence to the mix. “I was looking for people who had their own voices on their instrument,” Carpenter says. “That was the big thing, and that combination is really hard to find.”
He found that elusive alchemy in artists like trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, leader of the eccentric jazz band New Mellow Edwards; Brandon Seabrook, who brings heavy metal shredding to the banjo as well as the electric guitar; and reed player Andy Laster, whose own compositions meld modern jazz, contemporary classical, and Middle Eastern elements into a chamber-jazz hybrid.
After the success of their debut, Carpenter looked to a different source and decade for the band’s follow-up, last year’s Book of Rhapsodies. The album’s repertoire is the work of four quirky composers and bandleaders from the 1930s: the Alec Wilder Octet, the John Kirby Sextet, the Raymond Scott Quintette, and Reginald Forsythe and His New Music. Their off-kilter approaches are evident in their song titles, sporting names like “Dance Man Buys a Farm,” “At an Arabian House Party,” “It’s Silk, Feel It!,” or “Her Old Man Was (At Times) Suspicious.”
Best known among this crew is Raymond Scott, whose oddly evocative tunes were incorporated by composer Carl Stallings into many of his scores for classic Looney Tunes cartoons. Most familiar is his “Powerhouse,” which became the de facto soundtrack for any sequence of machines in motion. Carpenter was a fan of Scott’s work, once producing a lengthy radio documentary dedicated to him, but didn’t want to simply pay tribute to this single composer.
“That had been done,” he says dismissively, which seems to be a frequent consideration in his decision-making process. “Then I was reading Gunther Schuller’s book ‘The Swing Era’ and happened on this footnote about Alec Wilder during a passage about Raymond Scott, who Schuller didn’t like and really lambasted in the book. But he liked and was friends with Alec Wilder, who I noticed was also using strange titles and strange instrumentation. I thought, ‘There’s no way this is a coincidence.’”
He soon found other examples, and compiled the material for Book of Rhapsodies, in the process expanding the Orchestra to eleven pieces and venturing even further from the source material. “On the first record, the structures of the pieces were the same,” he says. “This one was more about breaking down the structures and building them back up again, which is a totally different approach. It was much more ambitious. You don’t really want to do the same record over and over forever.”
Ghost Train Orchestra performs at the Annenberg Center tonight; tickets and information can be found here.