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Ken Peplowski, master of the clarinet and both tenor and alto saxes, was born in Garfield Heights, Ohio on May 23, 1959. Peplowski and his trumpet-player brother performed all over their hometown with a Polish polka band. After literally growing up playing music professionally, he was hired by Buddy Morrow to play with Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra. While on the road he met Sonny Stitt and studied with him for a time.

Over the years Peplowski (known to his friends as “Peps”) has played with a long list of jazz greats, including Benny Goodman, Rosemary Clooney, Dave Frishberg, Steve Allen, Mel Torme, James Moody, Houston Person, and others. Besides his busy career as a touring musician, Peplowski is the current musical director of the Oregon Festival of American Music.

Here is a 7 minute video of Peplowski, courtesy of JazzTimes, as he discusses his music education:

Peplowski has released a considerable number of albums as a leader, and the one I want to talk about this time around is unquestionably one of his best. That would be the 1993 Concord Jazz release, “Steppin’ With Peps.”

The personnel for this one are:

Ken Peplowski, clarinet and tenor saxophone
Ben Aronov, piano
John Goldsby, bass
Alan Dawson, drums
Howard Alden, guitar
Randy Sandke, trumpet (tracks 1, 6, 6 & 11)
Joe Wilder, trumpet (tracks 4, 6 & 10)
Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar (tracks 6 & 10)

Peplowski-Steppin' With Peps-front
On “Steppin’ With Peps,” Peplowski gives us a very generous even dozen tunes, including one from his own pen. Even the title track, interestingly enough, was written by trumpeter Sandke. It’s also the album opener, and it does get things off to a fast-paced start.

“Among My Souvenirs” is a seldom-heard masterpiece that was written in 1927 by Edgar Leslie and Horatio Nicholls. Aronov’s piano opens, followed immediately by Peplowski on his big tenor sax. The two continue to dominate the song with notable support from the rhythm section. I had never heard of this song until I bought “Steppin’ With Peps,” and I have to tell you I really love it.

“Lotus Blossom” is a Billy Strayhorn classic melody that spotlights Peplowski, Wilder and Aronov. Peplowski has ample opportunity to demonstrate his chops on the clarinet and does so beautifully.

Speaking of Aronov, the next song, “No Problem,” was written by him. It’s a different sort of tune, lively enough to keep you interested and anything but predictable. Peplowski opens the piece on the clarinet but Aronson is always there, in the background, until Peplowski steps back and Aronson takes over. The song has a wonderfully poetic quality, and Aronson’s playing really brings that out.

“Johnny Come Lately” is another Billy Strayhorn piece. As you listen to this one you can close your eyes and quite easily picture yourself in Portland’s Melody Ballroom listening to a 40’s era big band.

“The Lady’s In Love With You,” from Burton Lane and Frank Loesser, is another lively piece where Peplowski’s clarinet gives the song just that right tone. Aronov once again gets a nice solo, followed by guitarist Howard Alden. Alden has been largely relegated to the rhythm section until this point, and it’s nice to hear the master take charge for a while. Then Peplowski and drummer Dawson do a little back and forth and then all too quickly the song is over.

“Huggles” is the only song here that was written by Peplowski. As I listened to it I found myself wondering why that was the case. It’s a delightful song, light-hearted and full of life. Aronov opens, followed quickly by Peplowski and trumpeter Sandke and the rhythm section guys. A real high point is when Sandke takes over.

The album closes with an Ornette Coleman tune, “Turn Around.” The song opens with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and drummer Dawson giving us a mellow intro. They are soon joined by Peplowski who picks up the pace a bit. Aronov eventually joins in, eventually Pizzarelli once again takes over. This is a song that could be boring, frankly, but in the hands of these guys it is anything but.

I believe that “Steppin’ With Peps” from Ken Peplowski will make a fantastic addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!

To learn more about Ken Peplowski and his music, visit his web site. Additionally, between August 2 and 11, 2013 he will be appearing in “Hooray For Hollywood” as part of the Oregon Festival Of American Music summer 2013 celebration.

Thanks for your support!

Al Evans

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