On the Genius of Alec Wilder
22nd November 2011
We played a show last weekend performing all new arrangements of the music of Alec Wilder, among others. The band sounded incredible on some very difficult and adventurous arrangements. I'm very excited about the new direction in which the band is headed.
I discovered Alec Wilder's music after stumbling across a footnote in Gunther Schuller's massive jazz history book The Swing Era. Largely self-taught, he studied briefly at the Eastman School of Music but left without completing a degree. By all accounts Alec Wilder was a real character. As a teenager, he split from his family and lived in and out of the Algonquin Hotel throughout most of his adult life. He loved to laugh, loved his friends, and loved alcohol, which he struggled with. He was known to run in large circles -- he had friends in the jazz, classical, and popular music worlds and was clearly at ease composing in all these genres.
In 1937 Wilder, with the help and organization of Eastman classmate and oboist Mitch Miller (who later became head of A&R for Columbia Records), recorded several strange and beautiful sides in New York City. Wilder imagined an octet with unusual instrumentation: oboe, flute, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet, harpsichord, bass, and drums. The octet recordings ("Octets") preceded by decades the Third Stream movement of the 1950s that Schuller spearheaded by combining jazz and classical concert music.
Wilder's music is not easily classifiable. The Octets are essentially chamber miniatures performed by musicians adept at swing. His music fell through the cracks and as a result his work is not as well-known as his contemporaries. In the 1930s, however, word soon got around to musicians in New York that Wilder was a composer to watch out for. It wasn't long before Frank Sinatra heard one of Wilder's classical pieces and approached Coumbia Records on Wilder's behalf to get him recorded.
The record executives agreed to record the pieces but only if Sinatra himself conducted the session. At the session, Sinatra immediately disarmed the orchestra by telling them he knew nothing about conducting, but that he desperately wanted this music to sound its best, and appealed to their leadership. Sinatra had never conducted a note in his life and here he was headlined as conductor on a 78 cover with Wilder, the composer and bandleader, reduced to second billing. On seeing the cover, an irate Sinatra called the heads of Columbia to insist Wilder's name appear in the same type size as his own. The change in billing never occurred, but the album Frank Sinatra Conducts the Music of Alec Wilder went on to be successful both musically and comercially.
On first listen, it was immediately apparent to me why a young Sinatra would be so captivated by Alec Wilder: Wilder had an ear for melody, beautiful song-like melodies. Like Sinatra, I too became a Wilder evangelist, collecting as many 78s as I could find and asking nearly every musician I knew if they had heard of him (most had not). I began arranging the Octets for the Ghost Train Orchestra. Wilder's music is deceptively simple -- it is dense with rapid form changes and rather difficult to comprehend on a first reading. I heard all sorts of things in the Octets that appealed to me. Wilder's music was so lyrical, it felt to me that the Octets were almost gasping to be sung. It also occurred to me that Wilder's music was very modern and should be approached that way. I find that Wilder's music is continually rewarding on subsequent listens. The more you listen, the more is revealed and it is revealed very slowly over time. I hope you too will experience the beauty and wonder of Alec Wilder's music through these new arrangements.
GTO to perform at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
4th November 2011
From November 11-26, The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. will present Swing, Swing, Swing, a celebration of the various musical styles which grew out of the swing rhythm. The Ghost Train Orchestra, Asleep at the Wheel, The Red Stick Ramblers, and the Firecracker Jazz Band are all part of the event. The Ghost Train Orchestra will perform Wednesday November 16th at 6:00pm on the Millennium Stage. A video of the concert will be streamed live here.
Halloween Or Bust
25th October 2011
You've probably figured out by now that the Ghost Train Orchestra is all about Halloween! We'll be performing two Halloween shows this year, one at the Philadelphia Mueum of Art on Friday October 28th. The second show will be in NYC at the Victorian Murder Mystery Ball at the Riverside Church. More details and tickets available at the EVENTS page. Brian Carpenter was interviewed by Kara Savidge at Temple University News in advance of the Philadelphia show. You can read the Q&A here.
The Ghost Train Comes To Boston
15th October 2011
We will be heading into Boston on Tuesday October 18th for a performance at The Regattabar in Harvard Square. This is our first performance in Boston since our debut there in 2006. We're excited to be returning to Boston again for this rare performance. In this week's Boston Phoenix, Jon Garelick interviews Brian Carpenter about the band and the music. You can read the article here. You can purchase tickets here.