The Ghost Train Orchestra differentiate themselves from most of the oldtime swing bands out there in that they don’t play standards. They specialize in rescuing lost treasures from the 20s and 30s, songs that were typically unknown outside of small, regional scenes. Part living archive, part tight, explosive dance band, it’s no wonder that their albums routinely top the jazz charts. They’re playing the cd release show for their latest one Hot Town this May 22 at 10 PM at the Jalopy. Because the venue is expecting a sellout, they’re selling advance tix for $10. Opening the show at 9, GTO clarinetist Dennis Lichtman does double duty and switches to his fiddle and maybe his mandolin out in front of his western swing band Brain Cloud.
The new album is a mix of songs that didn’t make it onto the orchestra’s 2011 breakthrough album Hothouse Stomp, along some even more obscure rediscoveries and a couple that might be slightly better known – go figure! The title track is actually a reinvention rather than a straight-up cover -and it was actually a big hit for Harlem’s Fess Williams and his orchestra in 1929 as a vamping novelty tune. This version has guest bass saxophonist Colin Stetson providing eerie diesel-train overtones before the clickety-clack groove gets underway. A second track originally done by Williams, You Can’t Go Wrong has more of a 19th century plantation-folk feel than the rest of the material here.
This album marks the debut release of Mo’Lasses, the second track, recorded by Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, also in 1929, but never released. As rapidfire doom blues (is that a genre?) go, it’s got a striking early Ellingtonian sophistication; bandleader Brian Carpenter’s trumpet, Petr Cancura’s clarinet and Curtis Hasselbring’s trombone all get brisk solos.
Hot jazz cult bandleader Charlie Johnson is represented by You Ain’t the One, with its jaunty, staccato brass and low-key but determined Mazz Swift vocals – and Charleston Is the Best Dance After All, which winds up the album. Benny Waters’ Harlem Drag strongly suggests that the Rolling Stones nicked it, hook and all, for Spider & the Fly. There are two numbers from the catalog of late 20s Harlem composer/bandleader Cecil Scott & His Bright Boys: Bright Boy Blues, with its slowly swaying, luminously morose chart, and the more upbeat but similarly indigo-toned Springfield Stomp.
Fats Waller’s Alligator Crawl alternates droll mmm-hmmm backing vocals with spritely dixieland clarinet and vaudevillian muted trombone. Chicago bandleader Tiny Parham – celebrated along with Williams on Hothouse Stomp -has three numbers here. Skag-a-Lag sets a rapidfire series of cameos against an oldtimey levee camp hook; Down Yonder features a call-and-response chart and sudden, klezmer-tinged minor-key detours; the lickety-split stroll Friction calls on Hasselbring’s trombone, Swift’s violin and the rest of the band to be on tiptoe all the way through, and they are.
This one will get both the Gatsby wannabes and the rest of us out on the floor – or at least wishing we could afford to be there. This may be dance music, but it’s also rooted, sometimes front and center, sometimes less distinctly, in the blues, and the blues isn’t exactly happy-go-lucky stuff. Times weren’t easy, before or after the Crash of 1929 and the persistent undercurrent that runs throughout much of this material reflects that. The album’s not out yet, therefore not streaming link, but you can get a sense of the kind of fun this band generates at their Soundcloud page. And they always bring merch to shows.