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Brian Carpenter: Eclectic Jazz, Rooted In Americana

Brian Carpenter.
Liz Linder
Courtesy of the artist
Brian Carpenter.

Brian Carpenter's music is like a road map of the U.S. The multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter has cited places like Coney Island and the Florida Panhandle as inspiration for his concept albums Dreamland and Boy From Black Mountain.

On his latest recording, Hothouse Stomp — which he recorded with his ten-piece Ghost Train Orchestra — Carpenter musically travels to the jazz scene in 1920s Harlem and Chicago, when bands had fewer horns and more eclectic rhythm sections.

"There was a small period of time between 1926 and 1932 in New York and Chicago when the bands were made up of nine to ten people," Carpenter tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So they hadn't yet evolved into the 16-piece big bands we know today. But they were small enough that they kept that visceral, bluesy sexual energy of early New Orleans jazz."

Carpenter rearranged music from several 1920s performers, including a brassy track called "Voodoo," which was originally composed by a Chicago-based vaudevillian named Tiny Parham, who played in between burlesque dancers and chorus lines at the Savoy Ballroom.

"His music doesn't sound like anything else," Carpenter says. "It's very eccentric. It's very idiosyncratic. He's got these slow, lumbering brass lines and these reed lines. Some of it's really creepy. And it's also just very beautiful — when I discovered Tiny Parham, I fell in love with him. There's nothing that really sounds like that."

/ Accurate Records
Accurate Records

In 2009, Carpenter won the Best Alt/Country Album at the Independent Music Awards for his Southern folk album Boy From Black Mountain. That record, as well as Dreamland and a forthcoming album about the Midwest, make up his "Weird American Gothic" trilogy, inspired by unusual Americana. Dreamland, for example, was based on an amusement park that existed on Coney Island between 1904 and 1911, when it burned down in a devastating fire.

"Some of the stories [about it] are just outrageous," he says. "There was a doctor who had incubator babies that he would show. There was a roller coaster on its opening that threw people off the tracks and killed them. There was a little village called the Lilliputian Village that was made up of dwarves. ... I was just fascinated by the stories."

Brian Carpenter is the founder of the Boston-based Beat Circus and the New York City-based Ghost Train Orchestra. The director of two upcoming films, he also played Dadaist founder Hugo Ball in Perfect, Kind-Hearted Wickedness.

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