Ken Peplowski: Good Times On the Road For Reed Virtuoso


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Ken PeplowskiThis is the best of times for jazz musician Ken Peplowski, renowned clarinet and tenor saxophonist. So good, in fact it was difficult for him to find time to talk by phone in June.

Having just returned from playing dates in Italy, he was in the midst of performing in New York's JVC Jazz Festival and cutting a CD with the Bill Charlap Trio. "It never rains but it pours, but it is great to be busy," he says.

Indeed, and there is no respite in sight. He will soon be on his way to more festivals, in Canada and cross-country to Oregon. Without a regular group, Peplowski travels to play dates alone or, occasionally, with compatriots, such as reed player Harry Allen (who was with him on an Italian date) or guitarist Howard Alden for duo appearances.

Arriving by himself, he often plays with local rhythm sections, which usually work out well. Sometimes, though, his backup isn't compatible. "Some promoters don't know how to put groups together, and, of course, they don't consult us," he says, sarcastically. "When I'm uncomfortable, I just block out the bad influences and play for myself."

Regular gigs he loves to take are the annual West Coast Jazz Party and the Newport Beach Jazz party, both staged by Southern California promoters Joe Rothman and John McClure. Rothman, a Peplowski admirer, says that since 1994 he has played 19 of the 20 parties he has promoted in Orange County, California. "Ken was at everyone except the first one," he says. "He holds the record for appearances."

Regarding musicians such as Peplowski who constantly travel, Rothman says they have to be expert in planning ahead. "Jazz players who stay home usually either teach or do studio work to make it. Those who depend on traveling have to very business-like in arranging their schedules." Tenor sax star Houston Person is someone else who would be in that category.

One of the joys of attending these type weekend parties is seeing and hearing musicians from various parts of the country come together. They may have encountered each other before, but often not for a while. When they get on the stand it's wonderful to see how they meld, as if they played together the night before, improvising on a theme, picking up motifs from each other, exchanging bars, all using a common language. This cohesion of elements is described by the late critic Whitney Balliett: "Jazz...like poetry, it is an art of surprise—that, shaken down, amounts to the blues, some unique vocal and instrumental sounds, and the limited, elusive genius of improvisation."

In 2008 Peplowski will be in Irvine again Labor Day Weekend, Aug. 28 to Aug. 31 for the 14th annual West Coast Jazz Party. He will perform in several group configurations, appearing with the likes of vibes legend Terry Gibbs, singer-composer-pianist Dave Frishberg, drummer Butch Miles and tenor man Person—always guaranteeing jazz at its very best.

Peplowski's affable nature and fun-loving personality always make him a crowd favorite. His witty introductions to numbers and humorous exchanges with the other musicians always get plenty of laughs. And Peplowski loves his fans: "It is like old home week when I see the people who have been coming to the parties for years."

Adding to his portfolio, Peplowski has taken on the responsibility of running jazz events. He is music director of the American Festival of Music in Oregon, in July (2008) and The Jazz Cruise in November the same year.

Born in 1959, Peplowski started playing for pay when he was a youngster in Cleveland. "I've been working since the 6th grade when I played clarinet in a novelty band, Polka Varieties," he says. "I knew from that time that I wanted to be in music."

He got his first jazz gig after he quit college to play with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, under the direction of Buddy Morrow. He was featured on clarinet and also played lead alto. While in the band, he met the great tenor saxophonist Sonny Stitt, a life-altering experience.

From that point he added tenor to his array of reed instruments. "Stitt is an inspiration to all of us who make a living on the road," he says. In the shadow of Coltrane and Rollins, Stitt, he believes, "was definitely under-appreciated during his lifetime."

Later in 1984, Peplowski joined Benny Goodman when the leader came out of retirement to lead a band. He played tenor, along with absorbing the bandleader's genius on clarinet.

Goodman had a great influence on Peplowski to the extent that his style is often compared to that clarinet legend. "I'm lumped in with him and swing because I play the clarinet and perform ballads, but I like to play all sorts of music," he says. Peplowski also greatly respects such disparate clarinetists as the late John Carter, considered avant-garde by some, and Marty Ehrlich, sometimes thought of as radical in style.

Peplowski, who has played classical himself, also admires Richard Stoltzman, the classical clarinetist who ventures into jazz. In 1996 he recorded with a Bulgarian symphony orchestra in the well reviewed The Other Portrait. "I look for chances to play classical music," he says. "In 2006 I performed Stravinsky's 'Soldier's Tale' in New York in an adaptation by Kurt Vonnegut the year before he died."

Peplowski signed with Concord Records in the '90s and has recorded a string of discs over the years. Particularly impressive were two duo recordings with guitarist Howard Alden, in '93, Concord Duo and '94, Encore! Live at Centre Concord. Last year he returned to the duo format with Alden with the release of Pow Wow on Arbors Jazz. His upcoming CD with the Bill Charlap Trio features ballads, and it will be released soon, according to Peplowski.

Come July and August 2008 his schedule gives him a little time off the road. At home, he loves to sit around and read. One of his favorites is Charles Dickens. Recently he finished reading "Our Mutual Friend." Otherwise, he says, "I love just walking around New York, playing a little tennis, going to movies and spending time with the family."

His wife, Kim, is a travel agent who owns Songbird Travel Services. "She got into travel when she looked into my itineraries and figured she could do a better job making my arrangements," he says. "She specializes in working with musicians." Both have two children from previous marriages, ranging in age from 7 to 14.

"Kim's lining up a real vacation for us in the Caribbean, in 2008," he says. "Promoters sell you on the idea that playing at a weekend party or on a cruise is like a vacation. But believe me it's not. When you're playing you're concentration is on that, not on relaxing."

Selected Discography

Ken Peplowski and Howard Alden, Pow-Wow (Arbors, 2008)
Ken Peplowski and Jesper Thilo, Happy Together (Nagel-Heyer, 2008)
Ken Peplowski, Last Swing of the Century (Concord Vista, 1999)
Ken Peplowski, Grenadilla (Concord Jazz, 1998)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Django Birdland

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