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January/February 2009

Ken Peplowski & Jesper Thilo
Happy Together: Live at Birdland Volume 1
Nagel-Heyer

You might conclude that tenor, or clarinet, battles are brewing when producer Frank Nagel-Heyer brings Ken Peplowski and Jesper Thilo together, since both co-leaders double on the same two weapons. Peace prevails most of the time as Thilo cedes Peplowski the licorice on all except one uptempo swinger, “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise.” Two tenor battles break out at this live session at Birdland Jazzclub in Hamburg, “Vignette” to start and “Centerpiece” to finish.

Between those bookend battles, we get Thilo blowing and vocalizing on “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” Peplowski caressing “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” and a complete cessation of hostilities as the rhythm section, spearheaded by Thilo Wagner, takes over the bandstand with Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way.” Rest assured, the Turtles’ saccharine single, “Happy Together,” isn’t covered on the playlist. The CD title presumably derives from the quintet’s triumphant gallop through “I Want to Be Happy,” where Wagner, Peplowski on clarinet, and Thilo on tenor are all on their best form cracking the whip.

The result is so happy that one wishes that Peplowski and Thilo had squared off more often on their choice axes. Perhaps that will happen in Volume 2. Another treat would have been another taste of both leaders on clarinet, a rarer combo when you think about it. “Sunrise” not only conjures up the frenetic tempos of the Benny Goodman combos, it crests electrifyingly with both clarinets wailing simultaneously (remember Benny and Hamp screaming at each other?), a breathtaking collaboration rather than a war. As for the tenor battles, score Round One for Thilo: Despite his derivative style, a synthesis of Webster, Hawkins, and Lockjaw Davis, he’s the hungrier combatant. Primed for battle, or better yet, soft seduction, Peplowski evens the score on “Centerpiece.”

Originally published in January/February 2009
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