When trumpeter and erstwhile festival promoter Brian Carpenter first relocated to Boston from his native Florida four years ago, he was, naturally enough, looking to put a band together.
The weird thing was, he had no idea what kind of band it was going to be.
"Do you know [filmmaker] Jim Jarmusch? The way he works is, he doesn't write a screenplay and then audition people - he writes for people he knows and wants to work with," says Carpenter. "That's the way this band works. I didn't want to write until I knew who was in the band. It was kind of a backwards evolution."
Most acts coalesce around a songwriter (or two or three) with material, or at least a vision, or when a group of good friends decides to make music together. Carpenter, a musical polymath who's played everything from jazz to ska, took an opposite approach to starting his latest project: He went looking for the most interesting and iconoclastic players he could find, confident that their interaction would inspire an interesting and iconoclastic new sound.
"It was a process of really just going out to shows and trying to find people that really just blew me away," Carpenter says.
So did Carpenter just approach various avant garde instrumentalists after witnessing a hot set and tell them, "Hey, you don't know me, but you're really good and I want you to be in this band I'm starting, but I've got no idea what it's going to sound like"?
"Yeah, exactly," he confirms with a laugh. "A lot of people want to walk into a band that's formed and solid, at least conceptually, but the more adventurous musicians tend to say 'OK, sure.' I was shocked that these people would ride the wave."
"These people" turned out to be some of the most creative and open-minded players in the Northeastern fringe-jazz/avant garde scene: Providence, Rhode Island accordionist and composer Alec K. Redfearn; banjo player Brandon Seabrook; improvisational alto saxophonist and Boston local legend Jim Hobbs; NYC tuba player Ron Caswell; "singing saw" virtuoso Leigh Calabrese (yes, she actually plays a hand saw); journeyman Providence drummer Matt McLaren; and a host of other part-time contributors.
The talents and widespread interests of these musicians, coupled with the somewhat timeless sounds of many of the instruments in this eclectic array, quickly led Carpenter and company to a singularly intriguing sonic identity, one that filtered certain bizarre old-time American and European pre-jazz styles through a progressive contemporary fearlessness.
"I didn't start out thinking that I wanted to do a circus band or a cabaret band or anything like that," says Carpenter. "I was really just looking for musicians that had very strong personalities and didn't sound like anything else. I brought them into the band, then I started writing for those people, and it ended up being The Beat Circus, this sort of Fellini-esque cabaret band. So it really came out of the musicians."
The Beat Circus blends Vaudeville, polka, and Eastern European gypsy music with the sounds of the Big Top, the cabaret and improvisational post-jazz to come up with something both immediately familiar and eerily foreign, something equally engaging and disturbing. The group could be the house band for the dark carnival in Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, its full-length CD Ringleader's Revolt the accompaniment to some faded old black-and-white cartoon that never saw the light of day because its creator's sense of humor made others … uneasy.
When playing its home turf, the band is sometimes joined onstage by fire-eaters and other spectacular sideshow-style performers, creating a flashy, perilous world to match the music. Having spent many years entrenched in the jazz community, Carpenter knows there are some highbrow types who'd look down their nose at dressing up avant garde music in such gimmickry. And he couldn't care less; the bandleader doesn't consider The Beat Circus to be a jazz outfit, or some sort of Tin Pan Alley revivalist troupe (though he admits any photograph of the members holding their instruments might lead the uninitiated to assume otherwise). He says their main crowd is a hipper audience, one that's grown tired of the redundant, guitar-based sounds of underground rock.
"It's mostly the indie-rock people that are really interested in new and fresh ideas and sounds," Carpenter says. "It's not what you'd think it would be."
In any case, he sees no need to explain or justify The Beat Circus experience to anyone.
"I just want to connect with people," says the trumpeter. "I want to be honest about what I'm portraying, and this is the music I hear right now."