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Ghost Train picks up speed

Ensemble mines the past while looking to future

'It's not like any other period of American music,' Brian Carpenter says of Ghost Train Orchestra's signature 1920s-era jazz gleaned from mostly forgotten bands. "It's not like any other period of American music," Brian Carpenter says of Ghost Train Orchestra's signature 1920s-era jazz gleaned from mostly forgotten bands. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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Brian Carpenter created the Ghost Train Orchestra as a one-off project, commissioned for the 90th anniversary of the Regent Theatre, Arlington’s historic vaudeville venue. But once the Ghost Train got rolling, its vintage 1920s jazz charts gleaned from mostly forgotten bands took on a vivid life of their own.

With an ongoing, if intermittent residency at Brooklyn’s creative hothouse Barbès, the 10-piece GTO has fulfilled all the promise evident at the band’s first rehearsal. Over the past five years the group has honed a singular repertoire of tunes shaped by the cultural ferment unleashed by Prohibition and the rise of urban African-American culture in the north.

“Playing these arrangements for the first time was startling,’’ recalls Carpenter, 39, who celebrates the release of the GTO’s widely acclaimed debut album, “Hothouse Stomp: The Music of 1920s Chicago and Harlem,’’ Oct. 18 at the Regattabar, the band’s first Boston-area performance since its 2006 Regent debut.

“It was like having the characters from your favorite book jump out of the pages,’’ Carpenter adds. “Everyone in the theater was just floored with the power of it. With Brandon Seabrook bowing the banjo, and Ron Caswell’s tuba, which goes way beyond the instrument’s original role playing bass lines, it’s definitely not a retro act.’’

The music was so potent that it inspired Carpenter to rededicate himself to the trumpet after several years of using the horn largely for textures and fills in Beat Circus, another eclectic band he started but which is now on hiatus. Creating the GTO enabled Carpenter to immerse himself in a body of music that he couldn’t comfortably shoehorn into Beat Circus’s two-thirds completed “Weird American Gothic’’ trilogy, which is inspired by pre-World War II America’s stark contrasting cultural landscape.

“I tried to put everything into Beat Circus, and it confused me and everybody else,’’ says Carpenter, who has been playing around Boston lately with the Confessions, a new song-oriented quartet that he debuted in January. “One particular band isn’t suited to do everything.’’

Even though Carpenter lives in Arlington, the GTO is a New York City ensemble by design. The GTO provided a golden opportunity to work with former Beat Circus comrades who had moved to New York, like Seabrook, Caswell, and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, while forging new musical relationships.

“I didn’t have a vehicle to play with New York musicians, and there are so many more places to play there,’’ Carpenter says. “With a band this size, you can’t play in a lot of rooms, so Barbès became a haven for us.’’

Carpenter first became acquainted with the GTO material while delving into the extensive collection of 78s owned by Rob Chalfen, owner of the invaluable gallery Outpost 186. “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You’’ is the only standard on “Hothouse Stomp,’’ an Andy Razaf/Don Redman collaboration introduced by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in 1929.

The most influential and best known of the bands covered by the GTO, the Cotton Pickers boasted a book of innovative arrangements by Redman, who played a seminal role creating the orchestral vocabulary for the swing era. Smitten by the Cotton Pickers and bands such as Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, a Harlem mainstay, and Southside Chicago’s Tiny Parnham and His Musicians, Carpenter reveled in the joyful, provisional nature of music that bridged the traditional hot New Orleans sound and big band swing.

“This era of jazz is so visceral, bluesy, and vocal [that] it appeals to almost everyone,’’ Carpenter says. “It’s not like any other period of American music. I don’t really listen to a lot of modern jazz. I’m more interested in jazz that’s very intimate and physical.’’

Andrew Gilbert can be reached at


At: Regattabar, Oct. 18, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $16. 617-395-7757.