03/26/12 By Lee Mergner
Ken Peplowski: House Music Hunting
Clarinetist and saxophonist launches initiative to do house concerts playing jazz and beyond
Ken Peplowski wants to play at your house. The noted jazz clarinetist and saxophonist isn’t really hurting for gigs. After all, he’s on the road roughly half the year, performing at clubs, schools, festivals and cruises. He just wants to do something different. This week he announced a touring program he calls “KP’s House Party,” in which music fans can book him for a house concert and pairing him with the group of their choice, across all genres.
“I’m throwing myself out there and saying to people around the country or even in other countries, ‘I’m ready to play with whomever you think would be an interesting combination, whether it be a duo or me playing with a group or me playing with different kinds of music, like with Indian musicians or a blues band,’ because I genuinely like all that stuff and I’m open to playing different things,” says Peplowski. “Part of the fun of this project is that we’re going to create everything in front of the audience. There aren’t going to be any rehearsals beforehand. I’m going to meet them as the audience is meeting us. We’re going to have an open forum and discuss everything in front of the audience. I’m going to ask them questions about what they do and they’ll ask me questions. I’ll tell some stories. It’s going to be a fun evening and kind of a look inside what we do as musicians when we’re collaborating with other people. Ultimately, we’ll create some good music out of it. It’s like walking the highway—sometimes it will work and sometimes it won’t. Even if it doesn’t, I think it will be interesting for people.”
A fan of way more than the mainstream jazz with which he is so strongly associated, Peplowski came up with the idea in part because he had been seeing that independent rock, pop and folk artists have been doing house concerts for years. So why not jazz? And he has done some jazz house concerts over the years, mostly on the West Coast. “There’s more of a tradition of those private concerts out there,” he explains. “I’ve always enjoyed them because it’s more intimate than playing a club. You’re usually playing in somebody’s living room and you’re right there with the audience. It makes for a much looser evening. I like opening up a dialogue with the audience as well as with the band.”
Peplowski can also lean on his experience as a soloist playing with local rhythm sections. “I’ve learned a certain discipline from that experience,” he says. “I used to study with Sonny Stitt and he always said, ‘If you can find one person to hook up with on the bandstand, you lock in with them. If you can’t find anybody, then you block them out and generate all the music yourself.’ It’s a process of opening and closing doors in a sense, depending on who’s sympathetic. Over years of doing this, I have a really good sense of how to keep a standard for myself in all kinds of settings.”
You’d have to think that he’d be concerned about being paired with a band like the Shags or some other less than proficient aggregation of amateur players, and indeed he will do a little vetting. Still, he says, “If it sounds like it will be fun, I will do it.”
Peplowski is known primarily as a mainstream jazz player, but that’s not necessarily what he’s prepared to play. In fact, he sees the cross-genre approach as one of the real benefits not only for the presenter, but for himself creatively. He wants to escape from the veritable box of the swing label. He believes the instrument itself is partly to blame for the pigeonholing of his music. “Benny Goodman had such a long shadow over that instrument and still does, that it’s hard to people not to make that association,” explains Peplowski. “And I tend to favor songs from the classic American songbook, but I don’t think of myself as playing them in a swing style—I just play them the way I play. But I can’t help what people say about me.”
Compared to touring with a group, the logistics for this program are decidedly simple, at least for Peplowski, who mostly has to be game for whatever happens on the living room bandstand. The presenter takes care of Peplowski’s transportation and lodging, adds a basic performance fee and then is free to pull together the band from the local scene. He says that he’s empowering this new breed of promoters. “It gives people a chance to be a producer and challenge me,” says Peplowski. “And it gives me a chance to play with different people and open up my horizons.”
Who are these would-be residential concert producers? “I think it will start with my fans, but as it grows, there may be other people who want to see what I’m about,” he says. “It’s almost like a throwback to the old days when you hit the road and built up a career by word of mouth. It’s not like I’m building a career, but I’m building something else. I always tell people that if you look at my records, you’ll see some of the interests I have. On my last album we did a free improvisation based on George Harrison’s ‘Within You, Without You’ in addition to playing some of those older tunes. I’m open to playing with different people and going in different directions. And I don’t think of myself as putting on a costume for each setting; I’m just being myself and trying to find a way for me to interpret or add to whatever we’re playing.”
Although he’s not prepared to announce his price here and now, Peplowski says that the fee will be affordable and perhaps even negotiable, particularly if he can drive there. It seems that Peplowski is one of the few New Yorkers who relishes getting behind the wheel and leaving the island via bridge or tunnel. And he seems generally eager to play music truly beyond category.
The whole thing almost sounds like a crazy theater project, like a performance art piece, and in fact Peplowski does have some ideas about documenting the experience. In the least, he’ll write a blog about it. Optimally, he’s thinking that it might evolve into some sort of podcast, and perhaps even down the road, literally and figuratively, into a radio show or recorded project.
Here is an interview with Peplowski from The Jazz Cruise, explaining the idea behind KP’s House Party: