New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Ron Caswell tuba

The Ghost Train Orchestra Steam Back to Upbeat, Playful Terrain

Back in January, this blog asserted that “It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.” The album is actually far more lighthearted and frequently cartoonish, with ambitious charts that strongly evoke 50s lounge jazz oddball innovator Juan Garcia Esquivel. Once again, the ensemble have created a setlist of strangely compelling obscurities from the 30s and 40s.

In an era when nobody buys albums anymore, the Ghost Train Orchestra have sold an amazing number of them, topping the jazz charts as a hot 20s revival act. Yet for the last five years or so, frontman/trumpeter Carpenter has been revisiting his noir roots from back in the 90s, with lavishly rewarding results. This release – streaming at Bandcamp – is characteristically cinematic, but seldom very dark. It opens with cartoon music maven Raymond Scott’s Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxi Cabs. a romp with horn and siren effects that comes together with a jubilantly brassy, New Orleans-tinged pulse, bringing to mind the Microscopic Septet at their most boisterous.

Likewise, Mazz Swift’s violin and Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet spiral and burst over the scampering pulse of bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia in Hal Herzon’s Hare and Hounds – meanwhile, some goof in the band is boinging away on a jawharp. Reginald Forsythe’s Deep Forest, which Carpenter wryly introduces as “A hymn to darkness, part one,” is closer to Esquivel taking a stab at covering Black and Tan Fantasy, guitarist Avi Bortnick adding spikily ominous contrast beneath the band’s ragtimey stroll.

The strutting miniature Pedigree on a Pomander Walk, the second Herzon tune, is just plain silly. Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek muted lines mingle with Ben Kono’s tenor sax and the rest of the horns in Alec Wilder’s Walking Home in Spring, Ron Caswell’s tuba bubbling underneath. The latin-tinged Deserted Ballroom, a final Herzon number, has a balmy bounce over a creepy chromatic vamp, a choir of voices supplying campy vocalese over lush strings and a Chicago blues solo from Bortnick. A neat trick ending takes it into far darker, Beninghove’s Hangmen-ish territory.

The disquiet is more distant but ever-present in A Little Girl Grows Up, a Wilder tune, despite the childlike vocals and coyly buoyant, dixieland-flavored horns. The band make Esquivellian Romany swing out of Chopin with Fantasy Impromptu: Swift’s classical cadenza toward the end is devilishly fun. They follow that with another Wilder number, Kindergarten Flower Pageant, which would be tongue-in-cheek fun save for that annoying kiddie chorus. Sometimes children really should be seen and not heard.

A playful minor-key cha-cha, Lament for Congo – another Forsythe tune – has bristling guitar, lush strings, faux-shamanic drums, Tarzan vocals and a lively dixieland interlude. The strings in Wilder’s The House Detective Registers look back to Django Reinhardt as much as the winds take the music back a decade further. The final tune, by Forsythe, is Garden of Weed, which doesn’t seem to be about what you probably think it is. It’s a somber, early Ellingtonian-flavored ragtime stroll, Garcia’s hardware enhancing the primitive, lo-fi ambience, up to a livelier exchange of voices.

A Rare Appearance by Wild Romany Party Band Romashka at This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

At the peak of their late zeros popularity, Romashka were rivalled only by Gogol Bordello and maybe Luminescent Orchestrii among New York Romany party bands. Frontwoman Inna Barmash, one of the world’s greatest klezmer singers, has a diamond-cutter clarity that’s almost scary. Her husband Ljova Zhurbin is one of this era’s most eclectic and brilliant violists. They don’t play live as much as they used to, but when they reconvene it’s like they never left off and the party starts all over again. They’re bringing their signature blend of slashing minor keys, acerbic chromatics and fiery Russian Romany dances to the latest installment of the ongoing New York Gypsy Festival at Drom this Sept 20 at 8 PM; adv tix are $15. It’s going to be a little taste of Golden Fest a few months before the annual Balkan blowout takes place next January 12 and 13 in Brooklyn.

Unless they’ve been keeping their gigs a big secret, the most recent Romashka gig was at Golden Fest 2018, and it was killer. Fortuitously, their set was recorded and is available as a free download at the Free Music Archive. They kick it off with Hochu Lyubit, a scampering, pulsing dance, Jeff Perlman’s clarinet bubbling, Zhurbin weaving through one ominous chromatic after another, then giving way to guest trumpeter Frank London’s triumphant solo as guitarist Jai Vilnai skanks and jangles. With her intense, melismatic delivery, Barmash gives it an extra shot of dramatic angst at the end – it was her birthday, so she was especially amped.

From there the band take a detour into a couple of acerbic Romanian dance numbers. Veering in and out of the western scale, Rustemul sounds like the theme to a village that time really forgot, a rustically surreal, coyly bombastic theme pushed along by Ron Caswell’s tuba and Chris Stromquist’s drums. Tocul is a lot more lighthearted and lickety-split.

Ljova’s delicate incisions and London’s plaintive trumpet matched Barmash’s distant, nuanced poignancy throughout a muted Russian tango, Serdtse. Her insistent attack and ornamentation in Loli Phabay – “Red Apple,” a Russian Romany tune – is pretty wild, in contrast with Vilnai’s jaggedly precise, Middle Eastern tinged jangle and clang.

Perlman fires off triumphant trills while Holmes smolders throughout the old Romany hit Shimdiggy. Barmash goes to redline right off the bat as the band launch into the edgy bounce of Zarnobila, taking a careening segue into a rapidfire take of Baro Faro to end their show with a blistering stampede out.

Although Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall wasn’t designed for electric bands, the sound quality is surprisingly clear and balanced. Get this set before it disappears (that happens sometimes at the Free Music Archive) – it’s one of this city’s great esoteric bands at the peak of their powers.