To write that Brian Carpenter has had an interesting career would be an incomplete statement since he holds so many. By day Carpenter is an engineer, but there's also his radio shows, his acting career, a film he's working on about Albert Ayler
, his band Brian Carpenter and the Confessions where he sings and composes, and more befitting for our purposes, there are his two groups, Beat Circus and The Ghost Train Orchestra.
A quick glance into Beat Circus and Ghost Train Orchestra's music could put the listener in disarray and leave them wondering if both groups contain the same Brian Carpenter. Beat Circus is an Americana and country type group with flashes of avant-garde while Ghost Train Orchestra was conceived as part of a commission to play music from the early swing era. But there are connections and similarities that lie in both groups (not counting Carpenter's involvement). The connection is in the spirit of both the music of Beat Circus and Ghost Train Orchestra. Both groups are veryfor lack of a better termweird. But strangeness isn't necessarily a bad critique, it's just a visceral reaction the listener normally clings to when being presented by music that s/he is not accustomed to. This is what Brian Carpenter relishes, bringing in music that falls by the wayside of today'sand yesterday'smusic in order to share them with his audience. All About Jazz:
During a previous interview, I heard that you were playing really complex Don Ellis
charts during high school? That must have been super hard. What was that like? Brian Carpenter:
That band was led by a guy named Mark Nelson who was in his second year as a band director, so he was very enthusiastic and ambitious. [Nelson] brought in all these kind of complex arrangements by Bob Curnow
who was a great arranger for the Stan Kenton
bandand some Don Ellis things. It was an eye opener to arranging for a trumpet playeror any musician playing in those bands. At that time I had only played classical music. I started out playing trumpet, but just like you [would] normally do in a middle school, and then I got into jazz in high school due to this particular band director.
He would bring in all these really hard charts. I don't know if we played them that well. I think it was a pretty good band; I'm sure if I heard it now I would be horrified. But it was a lot of fun to play those because it wasn't standards. One of the things he did was bring Bob Curnow arrangements of Blood Sweat & Tears tunes. It was from a record called Stan Kenton Plays Chicago
(Creative World, 1974). [Nelson] grew up playing in the '70s and went to college during that time, so he brought in all the stuff that he liked, and Stan Kenton Plays Chicago
was one of the records that he liked. It was Stan Kenton's band playing early arrangements of Chicago and early Blood Sweat & Tears and it's crazy!
We played a few charts off of that and it was super inspirational. The material was really bizarre and I think that [Nelson] was the one who turned me onto Don Ellis. I think we played a couple of Don Ellis pieces, but I don't remember what they were. But I don't think they were anything like what you might be thinking, like things that are in 19/4 or something like that. AAJ:
That was my next question actually. I was under the impression that you were playing really difficult meters. Even something in 7/4 would be difficult for a high school student. BC:
[Laughs] No, I think even the Don Ellis charts might have been in 5/4 or maybe 7/4. But it was progressive for a high school band. It was just an ambitious band director. He was young and ambitious so he was like, "I'm going to try these things out with my top jazz band and see if we can do them." I don't know where he got the arrangements for it, maybe UNT? He was basically playing college charts for a high school band. AAJ:
I know that you have a healthy respect for third stream jazz. When did you become aware of third stream? Was it around the same time you were playing in this high school band, or was it during college? BC:
I think it was during college, I think I got introduced to Carla Bley
by a friend who was in Sam Rivers
' big band. Sam Rivers was an amazing multi-instrumentalist and composer who passed away not too long ago. I knew him really well, he moved to Florida. He kind of retired down in Florida, but he didn't really retire. He was still playing and writing all the way up to his '80s.
He had this big banda lot of my friends played on this big bandand one of the guys said, "If you like this band, you should listen to Carla Bley." So that was my introduction to Carla Bley, and I went out and bought all these Carla Bley records. I really liked her writing. I got into Charlie Haden
through that; it was not until I got into Carla Bley that I realized that she was involved in Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra
(Impluse! 1969) and that's how I got that record.
When I was in college, I was really interested in Miles Davis
as a trumpet player. Every trumpet player has to go through a Miles thing. I got a lot of those records; I still have the vinyl of Miles Ahead
(Columbia, 1957), Sketches In Spain
(Columbia, 1960), and Porgy & Bess
(Columba, 1958). But it wasn't until much later decades laterthat I was listening to those records with an ear for arranging. That's what's so interesting, you can listen to those records as trumpet player and be blown away by Miles, and then you can listen to them as an arranger and be blown away by Gil Evans
I've had those records forever and I pulled them out about five years ago. I listened to them again and said, "This arranging is so brilliant!" [Evans]' use of the tuba in Miles Ahead
is just amazing! His use of the low brass and French horn instruments you don't usually associate with jazzwas very informative.
So the Ghost Train Orchestra is an arranging vehicle for me. I'm using that as way to learn arranging and voicings in order to apply it to original music that I'm writing. That's how that band is a challenge for me. AAJ:
Did you get most of your arranging chops from listening to these records or did you ever formally study with someone? BC:
I never went to music school and never studied with anybody. It was really more of sitting down and seeing if I could figure it out. It took a long time at first to transcribe those pieces and now I'm so much faster because I can hear better, my ear is attuned to those kinds of voicings, and I can pick up things better. But I think you learn best by doing. A lot of times I would bring in charts and the band would say, "This doesn't sound right, the clarinet should be lower." A lot of these thingsfor a whilewas kind of trial and error. I would bring in charts [that] wouldn't sound exactly right; there would be a reed section that didn't sound exactly right. So I would go back and maybe take it down an octave or change a voicing. But there's very little of that now because I've learned how to do it. Over the course of 10 years I've sort of learned how to do it.
In terms of transcribing, I just try to take some of the voicings and I try to forget about it. I have a turntable that has a usb cable and connects to my computer, so I have a digital version of what I'm transcribing. So I don't have to sit by the turntable and listen to the record a thousand times. With the digital version, it's much easier to pick out a particular section that might be hard to hear. I think the idea is to transcribe what you need to then re-arrange for this particular band because the instrumentation is different, I might want to open it up for improvisation, or I might have different idea for an ending. It's not exactly the same. In some cases it's wildly different, it just depends on the piece. There are some pieces that I might want to take into a whole different direction, other pieces some good the way it is, or maybe I want to put an ending somewhere. So there are a lot of liberties taken when it comes to that.
But you can learn it on your own; it just takes a lot longer. If I had gone to music school, I probably would have had the arrangements done a lot quicker earlier on in my career. I would have known how to voice particular instruments. But you know, that was the great thing about having a working band; you could basically use the band as feedback. AAJ:
Let's talk about instrumentation on Ghost Train Orchestra's latest record, Book Of Rhapsodies
(Accurate, 2013). Billy Kyle
played piano on John Kirby
's Sextet and there's a keyboard instrument on Alec Wilder's recording of "It's Silk, Feel It!" Is your decision to leave out a keyboard instrument for this project come down to timbre? Or is there something about guitarists that you prefer? BC:
It really came down to the people in the band. The original idea behind the band came out of a commission for doing a series of shows at a theater. The idea behind that was [that] was really interested in music from 1926 to 1931 so I wanted to play their instrumentation, which is three reeds, tuba, trombone, banjo, drums, trumpet, and violin so you have a nine-piece band. So the core of the band came out of that commission and when it came time to do this record, I really didn't see any need to add a pianist. It just felt like I wanted to work with this guitarist that I've known for a long time named Avi Bortnick
who I met in Florida in the mid '90s. Like I said, it came down to the people, who have you always wanted to work with, and I wanted to work with Avi. I also wanted to bring in a bassist, so that's how Michael Bates
came in for this record.
I think what you're hearing in the Alec Wilder thing is a harpsichord, which is really interesting that Alec Wilder was interested in the harpsichord and actually built the octets around the harpsichord. So I felt to have that done on a piano would have been disrespectful because the harpsichord is such a strange sounding instrument. Actually, the guitar sounds closer to the harpsichord than the piano because of the plucking nature of the instrument. So I just felt like, "Well, let's see how the guitar sounds." I don't know why I was hearing guitar, I knew that I wanted to work with Avi and I knew that there were some pieces that I had in mind for guitar, so I might have felt that it would be more interesting. Plus the guitar has all this spectrum of sounds; every solo he takes has a different sound. There's a surf guitar solo sound on one song, there's another song that sounds psychedelic, he might use a roto-box pedal on one song, and use a fuzz box on the other. And the thing with the guitar is that it just gives you this huge open vocabulary you can use that you can't really get with a piano. So those [might] have been the things that might have been going through my head in terms of instrumentation.
But I think it really came down with wanting to work with Avi. It's funny when someone comes back into your life 20 years later you know? Before the rehearsal I hadn't seen him in probably 15 years.