Good jazz seems to thrive on a tension between the future and the past, but stagnates when players only look back over their shoulders. Today, while the dull mainstream re-creates the 1950s and 1960s, there are musicians who, although they were just born then, take their cues from an earlier time. Among them, few can match the somewhat eccentric virtuosity of clarinetist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski. A Cleveland native, he started performing in his brother's polka band but soon fell in love with jazz. His first major gig was with the Tommy Dorsey ghost band. In 1980 he moved to New York, and he has pursued a busy solo career ever since.
The two most popular swing era clarinetists were, of course, Bennie Goodman and Artie Shaw, and these were Peplowski's major models. Goodman and Shaw were stars, to be sure, but they were also both instrumental virtuosos with expressive, complex sounds. As a clarinetist, Peplowski could hardly avoid their influence: he eventually ended up playing tenor saxophone in one of Goodman's latter-day orchestras, and he has participated in many tributes to the King of Swing, who died two decades ago.
But while Peplowski's sound owes much to Goodman, his harmonic and melodic concepts also incorporate more modern sounds. He once spent a day jamming and learning from the great bebop saxophonist and musical perfectionist Sonny Stitt, and he never forgot the man's teachings. Indeed, the clarinetist is proud of his eclectic tastes: he listens to modern and avant-garde jazz as well as to contemporary pop and finds inspiration in a wide range of music. He makes a good living performing for audiences often less open minded than he is, but his success as a traditionalist is very much tied to his wider musical interests, which account for the exciting freshness with which he approaches the older repertoire. Some of his fans were undoubtedly surprised when he released an album of solo modern jazz material as well as symphonic concertos by Darius Milhaud and others in 1996, but for others it affirmed the distinctiveness of Peplowski's musical worldview.
Above all, Peplowski is a performer, and he has protested against the corporate anonymity of much of what we hear. As he writes, "Music should not always be an easy, passive massaging of our already-inflated egos; at its best, it's a fully participatory experience for both listener and performer." Keep this in mind when he performs at the Firefly Club on Friday, July 27.
In a famous story about tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, he was watching Neil Armstrong's first lunar steps in 1969 and cried out, "Jesus Christ — a man walking on the moon, and I'm still playing 'Indiana'!" Fortunately, Sims's stylistic crisis was short lived, and he continued to play jazz standards. Peplowski carries on this tradition, with full awareness of the paradox.
[Review published July 2007]