May 2008

Howard Alden and Ken Peplowski: Old Songs, New Spins

On Pow-Wow, their new Arbors Records project, guitarist Howard Alden and tenor saxophonist-clarinetist Ken Peplowski rekindle the lively, interactive chemistry they established on two out-of-print duet outings, 1992’s Concord Duo Series, Vol. 3 and 1994’s Encore! Live at Centre Concord. With Alden filling in deep basslines on the low A of his seven-string Benedetto guitar while also providing rich chordal voicings and engaging in bristling hornlike single note unisons with Peplowski, the two partners exhibit a rare, near telepathic rapport on a wide stylistic range of tunes, from pre-Dixieland (1911’s “Panama”) to bop (a spirited romp through Bud Powell’s chops-busting “Tempus Fugit”) to jazz impressionism (Bill Evans’ graceful waltz “Very Early”) to bossa nova (Joe Puma’s “Bossango”), along with some seldom-heard gems from the Great American Songbook (Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing” and the Comden-Green-Leonard Bernstein number “Lucky to Be Me,” from the 1945 musical On the Town).

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Travis Anderson

Howard Alden and Ken Peplowski

Throw in an obscure Ellington tune (the Monk-ish “Who Knows” from his 1953 trio recording, Piano Reflections), an early Billie Holiday number (1936’s “Did I Remember?”), a gorgeous Strayhorn ballad (“After All”) and a popular Sammy Cahn tune from the ’50s (“The Things We Did Last Summer”), along with Alden’s solo guitar reading of a 1922 tune by pianist-composer and Bix Beiderbecke favorite Eastwood Lane (“The Land of the Loons”), and you’ve got a potent slice of Americana that spans the ragtime era to bebop and beyond.

What accounts for the highly eclectic nature of this duo? “Well, from my end, a lot of it is because I have a low threshold for boredom,” says Peplowski. “I’m not a composer myself, so for me it’s always a question of just finding things that I can put my own spin on. And because I like to listen to all kinds of music within the jazz spectrum, from really early stuff to modern, I have a lot of material to choose from.”

Alden, who hails from Newport Beach, Calif., and Peplowski, from Cleveland, met more than 25 years ago, shortly after the two had come to New York in the early ’80s. As Peplowski explains, “There was a circle of us that wound up playing in the same venues, subbing a lot at Condon’s and Jimmy Ryan’s and hanging out at those two clubs. And we kind of found each other because we all loved playing standards from the Great American Songbook. But very early on we got unfairly branded by the jazz press as being these conservative neo-swing musicians, and I always thought that was very unfair, because we weren’t walking around in old clothes and recreating concerts. We were just playing stuff that we liked, trying to find our own way of playing it.”

Along with Alden, he includes cornetist Warren Vache, trombonist Dan Barrett, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, bassist Phil Flanagan and guitarist Chris Flory in that group. “They called us ‘young fogeys’ and all this crap, and it was kind of silly because we were all listening to all kinds of things,” Peplowski adds. “Sure, I was playing Benny Goodman tributes but I also loved other clarinet players like John Carter. That guy is an unsung hero, absolutely one of my favorites.”

Peplowski’s own daring, unaccompanied take on “I See Your Face Before Me” from the new duets project is another example of how he is defying those old stereotypes by playing music that is at times provocative, challenging and decidedly un-fogey-like. “I’m not trying to prove anything,” he says. “I’m just playing things that I like. And that might be something that was just written or something that was written 80 years ago. To me, it’s just all music … just one long line of material to draw from.”

Alden, who switched to seven-string guitar in 1992 after collaborating on a series of duet recordings with seven-string pioneer George Van Eps, continues to defy that neo-swing tag on his own projects as a leader and as a member of Randy Sandke’s adventurous Inside Out band. His chemistry with Peplowski is perhaps best exemplified on the new collection by their exhilarating yet easy give-and-take on Joe Puma’s title track, which is based on the chord changes to Ray Noble’s “Cherokee.”

Says Alden, “When you play with somebody for a while, you get comfortable with knowing that if you throw something out there, he’s going to respond in one of several ways. He might jump back with a contrapuntal answer; he might not. He might go into [an] accompaniment role, or not. And you’re comfortable responding to his responses too. It’s always exciting to have a musical conversation with someone like that, and it’s all based on trust.”

Peplowski adds that their duet rapport has evolved over time. “There’s a saying that nature abhors a vacuum. And in a sparse duo setting your natural instinct is to fill in every space. In our early days of playing we talked a lot about this and at some point we decided, ‘Don’t be afraid to leave big chunks open.’ So that’s what we do now, because it’s as effective to imply things without stating them as it is to spell everything out.”

But even if the duo’s interplay seems extrasensory onstage, at home in New York they form an odd couple of sorts. Living one floor apart in the same Upper West Side apartment building, Alden is the overachiever to Peplowski’s laidback character. Says the reedist, “Our wives tend to talk to each other more often than Howard and I do. Even though we share the love of a lot of music in common, we are opposite in certain ways. Howard loves to practice and play as much as is humanly possible, and quite often I like to forget about jazz for a few days and recharge by listening to other kinds of music, read books, watch old movies.

“I think the last time we had the Aldens up for dinner he brought his guitar with him, broke it out mid-way through the evening, and proceeded to practice for an hour while the girls chatted and I looked around to see if I’d just turned invisible! The guy is really dedicated to playing the guitar.”

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