Concert Review: Ken Peplowski Swing All-Stars @ A Place for Jazz, 11/03/2023

A committee chooses who’ll play A Place for Jazz, but for Friday’s season closer, they ceded that choice to President Emeritus Tim Coakley. A drummer and DJ himself, Coakley chose contemporaries, mostly.

Except for generation-younger drummer Aaron Kimmell, Ken Peplowski’s Swing All-Stars brought seasoned sideman chops and a deep love of jazz history to the Carl B. Taylor Auditorium at SUNY Schenectady Friday. Some of those jazz giants they celebrated had employed, mentored and inspired Peplowski and crew.

Hailed as today’s top jazz clarinetist, Peplowski played with Benny Goodman, as did tenor saxophonist Harry Allen. For fans too young to remember Goodman, Peplowski listed a litany of icon comparisons, winding up with Taylor Swift.

Photo by Rudy Lu

They also brought old-school entertainer shtick and pizzazz. After opening with Al Cohn’s peppy “P-Town,” Peplowski (who played tenor on this) joked that he’d spared every expense assembling the band; and when pun-jokes on Cohn’s name fell flat, he urged bassist Peter Washington to “start the car!” so they could flee.

If “P-Town” swung old-school, “The Best Things in Life Are Free” swung even older; with the bouncy, conversational energy of traditional jazz. (You just KNOW I’m going to say, that’s called Dixieland everywhere but New Orleans where it was invented.) When Warren Vache spotted Nippertown photographer Rudy Lu focusing on him, Vache raised his cornet not to his mouth but to his eye, peering through it at the guy photographing him.

The roadmap they sketched early—unison statement, solos in turn, then a full-force re-cap—mutated in interesting ways through the two-set show, sub-dividing into quartet or trio. After “Best Things,” they moved from jaunty mid-tempo to bluesy ballad, from sextet to quartet as Peplowski and cornetist Warren Vache went offstage. Tenor man Allen then starred in a luscious/melancholy “You’ve Changed.” Returning to the stage, Peplowski wryly underrated the performance as “fair,” then he replaced Allen in the quartet for a rip through the Benny Goodman classic “Avalon.” Peplowski played a fiery solo here, but pianist Rossano Sportiello took over the tune, breaking into left-hand pounding Harlem stride at one point—as if Willie the Lion Smith or James P. Johnson took over the keyboard in Goodman’s band from Teddy Wilson. 

Photo by Rudy Lu

Later on, Sportiello played the ballad “Embraceable You” with all the graceful romanticism Wilson might have brought to it, a lyrical approach that also paid tribute to pianist Tommy Flanagan.

They closed the first set with the monumental Strayhorn/Ellington “Take the A Train,” first goofing on Lawrence Welk for flubbing the title on national TV decades ago. This proved an old joke can last as well as an old tune, but they played it seriously straight and great, especially bassist Peter Washington and Peplowski, whose solo-ending riff Sportiello grabbed and bounced around. 

They started the second set like the first, with Peplowski playing tenor alongside Allen in “So Nice to Come Home To.” Kimmell brought it home, clearly playing the melody cadence at the drums.

Vache’s cornet went all jokey-raspy near the end of the colorful, peppy “What Am I Here For,” and although he seemed to be feeling less than his best, he rallied to star, Harry James style, in “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face,” Sportiello at his most lyrical. 

Sonny Stitt’s “Blues Up and Down” turned into a two-tenor cutting context both Peplowski and Allen arguably won; or maybe we in the audience did, watching their fireworks. They started playing it in harmony, fought it out, then made friends in harmony at the end.

Photo by Rudy Lu

The headlong momentum of Stitt’s blues made the expressive tenderness of “Embraceable You” all the more poignant. Leading the trio, Sportiello took his time, turning the melody inside out and upside down thoughtfully to start, then Washington and Kimmell joined at his first complete melody statement, where the tune launched in compelling clarity. Everybody nailed it so sweetly.

Sportiello then led a zippy bop number I didn’t recognize, punching a stride intro before the horns took over, Vache in his best uptempo playing all night, Allen and Peplowsky both going strong.

The mid-slow lullaby “Body and Soul” showcased the horns more quietly, a can’t-miss melody that the guys took turns exploring gently.

When A Place for Jazz announcer and WCDB DJ Bill McCann coaxed one more, the band conferred and pumped up “Crazy Rhythm,” everybody in full fun flight. Vache jokingly tossed a kiss to Peplowski after a particularly eloquent solo, then played one of his own, feigning surprise at what had just come out of his horn by quizzically examining the bell. 

They revved to hot tempos at times but always played with the calm assurance of old pros playing old songs, even Kimmell. The young drummer played simply, for the most part; in pre-Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich straightforward time-keeper swing. And for all the fire that horn players Peplowski, Allen and Vache ignited up front, the rhythm section of Sportiello, Washington, and Kimmell was aces on every tune. The very reserved Allen was a laid-back revelation, telling stories through his tenor but never showing more excitement than an eye-shaded accountant preparing your tax return. Allen wore shades, while Washington’s stingy-brim was the only hat onstage, but I digress.

Happy with the evening’s music, as was president emeritus Tim Coakley, who’d selected Peplowski and crew to close the season, McCann called, “See you next year.”

  1. Jim Matthews says

    I consider myself fortunate to attend Friday’s concert. Tempus Fugit.

    I drove nearly 4 1/2 hours to hear this set, and consider it one of my best decisions.

    For those of us with admiration for our favorite entertainers – see them whenever you can.

    Who can say how many we have?

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