When the Los Angeles Jazz Institute's biannual big band festivals convene, SoCal always sees a certain amount of musical collateral associated with it. That's why the swinging clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski appears at Bacchus Kitchen in Pasadena Saturday.Peplowski, an itinerant soloist and bandleader who estimates he spends about 200 days of the year on the road, is one of the many go-to players that the Jazz Institute's head Ken Poston calls on to interpret classic jazz repertory. Among the four days and nights of music, panels, film shows and presentations, Peplowski is the featured voice for the concert "Tangents in Jazz: Music of Jimmy Giuffre."
The maverick reed player Giuffre was an angular improviser and quirky composer. It might seem like an odd assignment for the melodious Peplowski, but he likes the challenge. "It's one of the reasons I like doing Ken's weekends," Peplowski says from his New York home. "Jimmy was a very different clarinetist, tenor and baritone saxophonist. I'm not going to try and recreate him — that would be almost impossible because his playing was so unique. But I'm looking forward to getting into his music. As a player and a composer, Giuffre definitely went his own way."
Peplowski's youth was spent in Cleveland and he jobbed early as a teenager. "The first time I ever played in public," he recalls, "I knew that's what I wanted to do the rest of my life. I played a lot of polkas and they primed me for jazz: Each has high clarinet leads, and there's always a place for a drum solo."
Though Peplowski was associated with the young jazz players who embraced pre-bebop traditionalism in the late 1980s (cornetist Warren Vaché, trombonist/arranger Dan Barrett, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, and guitarist Howard Alden), he's proven in the interim that his musical purview has more to do with values than style. On the excellent "Maybe September" album (Capri, 2013), he plays a slow, haunting tenor sax meditation on Brian Wilson's "Caroline No."
It's not the only introspective cut on the CD; Irving Berlin's little-known "All Alone By the Telephone" positively aches in round, dark clarinet tonality. "Melody is very important to me," Peplowski confesses. "That's one of the reasons I like Ornette Coleman — his music is full of melodies. When people gag on free jazz, I always send them to Ornette's music."
Does Peplowski see a strain of melancholy in the collective Polish emotional heritage? "Definitely," he answers. "I played hundreds of Polish weddings; those people like to be moved by music. We'd play the polkas and dance tunes but always got requests for weepy old songs."
"I always try to find the emotion to convey what the song's words say," Peplowski continues. "I find those deeply emotional tunes to be cathartic. They tell us that through all the hardships, you have to keep going. I could do a whole album of wrist-slashers!"
Bassist Katie Thiroux met Peplowski at the Vail Jazz Party three years ago. The clarinetist was struck by how she knew the more obscure corners of his repertoire. "I'd call these tunes like 'Maybe in September,'" he marvels, "and she knew them all. She clearly did her homework, and that's the first time anyone's ever done that for me. The best musicians are always learning."
"I always try to study up on people," she says from her Long Beach home, "that I know I'm going to be thrown in with; it shows respect and you might get hired later on." When Peplowski heard that Thiroux would be in New York, he brought her and her partner, drummer Matt Witek, onto a few of his club dates.
"Katie's definitely got that bass thing," Peplowski adds. "She's got a big, beautiful sound, she swings, and she's always listening and always contributing. She and Matt have a very nice musical marriage. Like all the best musicians, Katie and Matt are always learning."