The Friday Morning Listen: Ghost Train Orchestra – Hothouse Stomp (2011)

Photo by Chris Pepper

Before I get to the part of the article where I piss off the Ken Burns jazz fans, let me rant a little about something completely (well, almost) unrelated. So I’m minding my own business the other day when I see this tweet (Hmmm … if somebody reads this twenty years from now, will the word “tweet” still make sense?) about the phenomenon of anti-intellectualism in the geek world. Sanger’s article was quite interesting (if depressing), touching on the recent popular topic of Is college a waste of time?. There sure have been a lot of articles and radio shows recently about this idea. Many coming down on the side of “Yeah, it’s a waste” seem to be driven by the recent state of the world economy, employing anecdotal “evidence” about kids coming out of law school and not being able to find work. Sure, the economy is in the tank, so let’s just stop learning because … uh … you know? Whatever!

Clearly, I don’t have a serious answer to the question (and you can’t make me present one because 1. It’s Friday and 2. I’m wearing a fire-engine red baseball shirt), but there is one point that really, really gets to me. It’s the idea that knowledge of topics not directly related career pursuits has no value. I’ve always thought that the study of new topics stretched the mind, making it more flexible. While you might not be able to directly apply your experience reading Gravity’s Rainbow to that difficult situation with your boss, your perseverance with Pynchon’s “difficult” imagery might have its own value. Since you really can’t know the future, it seems crazy to write off entire intellectual arenas just because it’s “easier” than bearing down a little.

These ideas and arguments got me to thinking about a serious hole in my musical knowledge: old-time or “traditional” jazz. Sure, I know who Duke Ellington is. And Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong. I know who they are but I don’t know the music very well. Why? Because I’ve never liked it all that much. It used to be that I’d put on some Hot Fives and my ear parts would hear invariant rhythms, and horn sections that kind of “smoosh” together. Was it the old recording technology? I didn’t seem to have the same problem with old blues records. Hmmm …

Anyway, this kind of went on all the way past the whole Ken Burns jazz thing. I kind of dug in after that series, insisting that there was nothing in that early music. This undoubtedly had to do with Wynton and Crouch managing to turn 75% of the episodes into shrines to Louis Armstrong. Hey, Armstrong is great, but can I have more than 17 passing seconds of Cecil Taylor and Ornette? Thanks.

My point (or as much of one as you can have while wearing a fire engine red baseball shirt) is that even though I wasn’t particularly interested in the music, I never gave up on it — knowing that the links from the past to my present just hadn’t become strong enough yet. The funny thing is that for many, many years (OK, decades) I’ve wanted to buy a Victrola. Yeah, I wanted to hear the old sides in their original form: sides! Gimme those 78s, I want to relive what it was like for people to discover the music in their living rooms, scratchy platters and all.

You won’t hear that vintage noise on Hothouse Stomp. Instead, it’s the spirited music of the Harlem Renaissance and the Prohibition era, passionately delivered by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra. Brilliant stuff. And what does it have to do with all of the other music in my listening bag? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m more than willing to let the knowledge pour in.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski