Ken Peplowski’s rendition of “Caroline, No” might be the most beautiful piece of recorded music of the year. Playing tenor saxophone, Peplowski gives the Brian Wilson classic a tender, respectful treatment, patiently exploring its every nuance over eight minutes. He plays the melody straight, with no extra notes, and then backs away to let his rhythm section—pianist Ted Rosenthal, bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson—interact quietly with one another. Peplowski returns with a quick, descending phrase, then offers a lot of short, clipped notes while managing to keep the volume down. He wants to lull us, not blow us away. When he returns to the theme, he delivers more drama but not more force. This one song alone is worth the price of Maybe September, Peplowski’s superb new CD.
But the entire album is a work of art. (That includes its cover picture, Edward Hopper’s 1940 painting “Gas.”) It is an album largely of heartbreakers, but that doesn’t mean all 11 songs are downers. “Moon Ray” is upbeat and happy, Duke Ellington’s “Main Stem” is a quick-paced blues, and “Always a Bridesmaid,” the one original, is fast and jerky, like a Thelonious Monk tune. Even the sadder numbers, such as the title track, are more romantic than depressing.
On most of the songs Peplowski plays clarinet, and the instrument’s subdued tone is so right for the mood. The quartet uses a lot of air and space in Irving Berlin’s “All Alone,” and its takes of “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I” and “I’ll String Along With You” are nostalgic and retro without feeling old and staid. The disc’s most devastating tunes are duets—“Romanza” (from Francis Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata) with piano, the Beatles’ “For No One” with bass.
What’s astonishing is that this gorgeous album was recorded in three hours. As Peplowski tells us in the liner notes, the musicians were arranged in the studio as though in a club, and they recorded direct to two-track. The project is something of a manifesto against today’s “perfect” music, but with Maybe September Peplowski has attained perfection of a different kind.