Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra
Hothouse Stomp: The Music of 1920s Chicago and Harlem
Scratchy 78s and old movies where no one moves at the right speed — that’s the origin of jazz, one of America’s perennial favorite exports. Before the coolness of Monk and Mingus took hold, jazz was a sweaty, raunchy dance hall sound that flappers and bootleggers and brilliantined Lotharios relaxed to as they drank crappy gin and smoked cigarettes. Today, we can begin to reconstruct those old sounds by computer analyzing the original recording, accurately estimating keys and sloppy time signatures, and then carefully replaying the old tunes on new instruments. That’s the life’s work (or latest project) of Brian Carpenter, musical director of Voltaic Vaudeville out of Andover, Mass.
These twelve sides do their level best replicate the 1920s sound of Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Fess Williams’ Royal Flush Orchestra, and Tiny Parham and His Musicians. Love those names; they’re long and toothsome and roll off the tongue unlike any modern musicians. Without the surface noise, these tunes take on a different tone as well. All are artfully done with some modern re-arrangements: a musical saw appears on “Voodoo” and “Blues Sure Have Got Me,” backing musicians keep their place, and the lead vocals on “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You?” sound positively Methodist. What I feel might be missing is the raw sexuality and naughtiness of the original — these cuts all have a rather sterile feel, and aren’t as exciting as a Jeeves & Wooster intro. That’s not to say they are poorly done, I just feel they are done TOO accurately and while they strip off the noise and lo-fi artifacts of the original, they capture the notes better than they capture the notoriety of the music. I suspect this might be better in a live show with a crowd dancing and drinking, but it’s still a very nice retro set of music built with 21st century technology.