David Larsen, The Peplowski Project Review
Swing Time: A Homage with David Larsen’s The Peplowski Project
by Ferell Aubre
Jazz is often described as a dialogue, a form of musical conversation. Saxophonist David Larsen’s The Peplowski Project achieves this interactive spirit with laudable finesse, featuring the incomparable Ken Peplowski on clarinet and tenor sax. A harmonious combination of jazz standards and original compositions, the album is a respectful nod to the straight-ahead jazz of the 1950s, explicitly highlighting the brilliance of Al Cohn’s arrangements.
While Larsen and Peplowski may be the headlining acts, the ensemble’s potency should be noticed. Jake Svendsen on piano, Josh Skinner on bass, and Brendan McMurphy on drums form the backbone of this project, offering far more than rhythmic stability. Svendsen’s piano work is particularly noteworthy, providing harmonic richness and melodic embellishments. Skinner’s bass lines are steady yet intricate, adding a layer of complexity that enriches each track. Meanwhile, McMurphy’s drumming keeps the pulse alive but ventures into conversational territories, creating moments of unexpected delight. Their combined efforts make the album a well-rounded journey through jazz history and innovation.
The musical choices here are calculated but organic. Opening with Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are,” Larsen makes a compelling case for the baritone sax’s emotional depth, paired seamlessly with Peplowski’s clarinet. The track establishes a textured dialogue among the musicians, made even more vivid by Svendsen’s ornamental piano and the rhythm section’s disciplined swing. This opener is a microcosm of the entire album—thoughtful arrangements, impeccable musicianship, and no shortage of swing.
Larsen’s original compositions, notably “He Who Getz the Last Laugh,” are indistinguishable in quality and style from the classics they sit alongside. These pieces do more than mimic; they extend the genre’s tradition into modern times, offering fresh conversations in an old language. Moreover, the trading phrases between Larsen and Peplowski encapsulate a bygone era, breathing life into the 1950s jazz vernacular but in a contemporary setting.
Technical sophistication is apparent throughout the album, particularly on “Doodle Oodle,” where the ensemble navigates up-tempo complexities with effortless grace. Here, Peplowski switches to tenor sax, a small yet significant detail that diversifies the album’s instrumental palette. Such nuances in instrumentation keep the listener engaged without diverging from the central jazz idiom. The blend of ribbon mics for wind instruments and condensers for the rhythm section lends the album a timbral authenticity that complements its musical integrity.
“In a Sentimental Mood,” by Duke Ellington, is another gem. At the onset, Larsen and Peplowski’s counterpoint suggests a musical maturity that isn’t overbearing but comfortably self-assured. The emotive qualities of their respective instruments are explored deeply, making the performance an intimate experience. Larsen’s solo shows his beautiful upper register tone on the bari as he leads us through the minor-keyed harmony. Svendsen’s piano takes the bridge section and last A section for his emotive solo. The magic happens during Peplowski’s expressive and beautifully fluid clarinet solo. His ideas always imply the melody while he embellishes it with complex melodic figures.
Taking us through “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” a Jimmy McHugh classic, the ensemble gives us a medium slow swinger that could captivate anyone’s attention. The bridge? An exquisite dialogic moment between Larsen and Peplowski, as they phrase their glissandos with a synergy reminiscent of a perfectly executed classroom discussion. Skinner’s bass solo delivers a melodic narrative, leading to Svendsen’s flowing improvisational statements. Both Peplowski and Larsen, on their tenor saxes, offer contrasting solos that balance melodic elegance with emotional depth.
Yet, the most striking feature of The Peplowski Project is the harmonious chemistry between clarinet and saxophone. The choice to focus on these two reed instruments, especially the often-underrepresented baritone sax, gives the album its unique character. While many recordings let these instruments remain in the background, Larsen and Peplowski bring them into a refreshing, well-deserved spotlight.
Overall, The Peplowski Project is a carefully crafted masterpiece that pays tribute to the legacy of straight-ahead jazz while remaining delightfully current. Its high-fidelity one-take recording style not only preserves the raw energy and dynamism of jazz but also speaks volumes of the musicians’ virtuosity. It’s a must-listen for anyone who loves jazz that swings and conversations that matter. Highly recommended.