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To play is the thing
The Beat Circus’s vaudevillean bent; plus Danilo Pérez and Bruno Råberg
BY JON GARELICK

When Brian Carpenter moved to Boston in 2001, it was to escape the "cultural wasteland" of his lifelong home region, central Florida. Not that things were all that bad in Florida. He played with indie-rock and funk bands, including River Phoenix’s Aleka’s Attic and an early version of Less Than Jake, organized a Gainesville pop and jazz festival in the mid ’90s, and became friends with the great jazz saxophonist and composer Sam Rivers, who played at Carpenter’s wedding. But overall, he found a general complacency in the music scene. He came to Boston to pursue work as a filmmaker (he’s two years into production on a documentary about jazz deity Albert Ayler) and to play improvised music. A classically trained trumpet player with a theater background (he once played the Wolf in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods), he put together a band who would eventually become the Beat Circus. Their new CD, Ringleader’s Revolt, is just out on Innova, and they’ll celebrate its release this week with gigs at the Middle East and at Providence’s AS220.

"If you’re lucky, you find a project as it’s happening, and that’s exactly what happened with this band," Carpenter tells me as we sit in the 1369 Coffee House in Inman Square. In Boston, he looked for strong personalities, "characters," as if he were casting for some yet-unwritten screenplay. "I wanted to find characters first, and then out of the improvisations we would build some kind of a band — who knows what it would be."

Carpenter found his characters in the extraordinary avant-banjo player Brandon Seabrook, alto-saxophonist Jim Hobbs from the Fully Celebrated Orchestra, tuba player Jim Gray of Naftule’s Dream, revered local utility man Charlie Kohlhase on baritone sax, and drummer Jerome Deupree of Morphine, the Either/Orchestra, and too many other bands to name. When the band began to jell, after months of rehearsals, Carpenter began booking gigs. The new schedule became impossible for Gray, and New York tubist Ron Caswell joined the band on the basis of recommendations from friends.

With each new member, the character and the direction of the band would shift. At first performing as Beat Science, they played loft parties, and going into a summer-long residency last year at the Lizard Lounge, they were a kind of free-jazz outfit, working around loose arrangements of Carpenter’s themes, or jamming with guests like Roswell Rudd and dancers from the burlesque revival scene. Then, mid summer, the Providence accordionist Alec K. Redfearn sat in. He was the final, defining character in Carpenter’s evolving screenplay: "Alec added this whole Weimer-era dark, brooding sensibility." The band turned in a Fellini-esque direction, not merely in its musical allusions to Nino Rota, Kurt Weill, and the American circus music of Karl King but in its natural theatrical bent. Instead of writing loose, free-jazz arrangements, Carpenter began writing more tightly arranged pieces for specific collaborations with burlesque dancers, comedians, and actors. By this past spring, Beat Science had become the Beat Circus. Carpenter, meanwhile, was desisting from valve trumpet in favor of the vocalizations of slide trumpet, an instrument he first heard played by his friend Steven Bernstein of Sex Mob. (Matt McLaren now occupies the drum chair.)

Ringleader’s Revolt deploys the familiar oom-pahs of circus music, rearranges pieces by Weill and King, and even deconstructs Rodgers & Hammerstein’s "The Lonely Goat Herd" from The Sound of Music. Seabrook’s stunning banjo playing, which has a percussive bouzouki quality that as Carpenter points out has nothing to do with bluegrass or Dixieland, is a tonic throughout. And Hobbs on "Big Top Suite 2: Clowns" shows just how focused "free" playing can be, taking his solo way out while still playing with a sharp ear to the ensemble and the oom-pah-pah-driven form.

But the show is still the thing. Boston comedian DJ Hazard contributes a narration to the CD and will perform at the CD-release party at the Middle East, as will the Sob Sisters, who on the CD contribute musical saw and cello and at the Middle East will do their Tin Pan Alley repertoire. Banjoist and yodeler Curtis Eller will contribute his storytelling. Rev. Glasseye and His Wooden Leg will do what Carpenter calls their "vintage old folk American Gothic." Carpenter allows that the Middle East’s small upstairs stage limits the choreographic possibilities, but he emphasizes, "We want it to be visual. We want to take risks. We don’t want to play it like on the CD. We want to keep people on their toes."

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Issue Date: September 24 - 30, 2004
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