Off The Beaten Track- Music Reviews and Musings by Mary Leary
Live! The Hot Club of San Diego
The unpolished truth is, I’ve been Django’d. Like a good acid trip, the condition is rather hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t been there.
I could also say I’ve been been hot-clubbed. The term “hot club” emerged when two unusually gifted musicians–gypsy guitarist Jean-Baptiste (Django) Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli–started wowing Parisians in 1934.The emergence of the Hot Club Quintet was nearly as extraordinary as Reinhardt’s response to an injury that paralyzed his left hand’s third and fourth fingers. By the time he joined Grappelli he was using two uninjured fingers for his imaginative solos.
Critic Thom Jurek described Reinhardt and company as “one of the most original bands in the history of recorded jazz.” However impressive that may be, the warm, often melancholic, violin/guitar-driven swing associated with “hot club” was for me an acquired taste. Once I got it, I found it hard to shake.
Musicians around the globe have labored to recreate the style, or at least been colored by it. Leaving aside decades of swing and ragtime and moving into the present, a standout contemporary outfit is the much earthier Hot Club of Cowtown. You could also say that Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Asleep at the Wheel, The Cheap Suit Serenaders and Sweet Hollywaiians have all been Django’d.
The Hot Club of San Diego has had trouble surviving. I know about it because Daniele Spadavecchia, lead guitarist from the most recent incarnation, sometimes appears at the North Park Farmer’s Market, throwing down nearly palpable evocations of European style and elegance.
Since Daniele handed me a copy of Live! I’ve been trying to cobble together something pertinent about a band that doesn’t exist at the moment. In truth, what’s happening is Daniele and rhythm player Jason Durbin, performing “Sicialian Swing,” which is charming, sometimes featuring Daniele’s vocals. Originally from Italy,
Daniele came here from New Orleans, which he called home until being forced out by Hurricane Katrina. Interestingly, the Big Easy had a seminal influence on early jazz.
Daniele says that in order for there to be another San Diego hot club, he and Jason would need to be joined by a violinist and upright bassist. He says he’d love for the Hot Club to return in full force. That makes at least two of us. Of the many guitarists who’ve attempted Reinhardt’s deftly emotive style, Spadavecchia rivals the best, conveying depth and subtlety without superfluous flash. For more information about Spadevecchia, visit his website.
Live! captures a May, 2008 performance at Old Time Music. As happens with many hot clubs, nearly every number was written or given a personal stamp by Reinhardt. On this perfectly engineered recording THCOSD display the well-oiled collaborative communication facilitating effective emotional surges.
While the entire album is addictive, if pressed I’d name a hot reading of traditional gypsy song, “Deja Du Devla,” that left me craving more. I’d also cite a perfectly moody “Improvisation sur une Dance Norvegienne” and a sprightly “Les Feuilles Mortes” (“Autumn Leaves”) subtly underscoring its beautiful nuances–something I no longer expected from this well-mauled chestnut. Other gems include a warm “J’attendrai,” a meticulously measured “Tears,” a Western swingy “Django’s Tiger,” and the sexy sophistication of “Troublant Bolero.”
The well-seasoned-wood resonance of Paul Hormick’s bass lends depth that wasn’t possible on the original recordings. Ray Suen, who is currently touring with rock band The Killers, upped his swing-jazz learning curve by adding impeccable violin. Also featured are rhythm guitar by Jason Durbin and Reinhardt proponent Alain Cola.
My feeling is that every American city that wants to be called “major” should have a hot club, a designation that would imply sophistication, along with a sense of musical history in a significant portion of that city’s population. Perhaps you’ll support the cause by acquiring Live!
The only way to do so shouldn’t be too painful: Urban Solace and Zia’s Bistro are both graced regularly by Sicilian Swing, sometimes including guest musicians and collaborations with wonderful flamenco players, Los Reyes Del Ritmo. Daniele looked pretty depressed one day this summer when he told me how much he and his wife miss Europe. Perhaps selfishly, I’d hate for them to leave. I’m pretty confident that anyone who’s heard THCOSD, or Daniele in any of his other musical guises, will feel similarly.
Hot Club of Cowtown – Wishful Thinking
Exactly which town can lay claim to this hot club?
Although it began in New York’s East Village in 1998, Austin has been home to Hot Club of Cowtown for a long time. Now that the band’s on a seemingly endless tour supporting the new CD, it sounds like its members may be periodically be laying their hats in Tulsa. I can only imagine how many times they’ll enjoy singing “Take Me Back To Tulsa” on the way back
into town – if it were me, that could be quite a few. Anyway, given Austin’s ongoing enthusiasm for American roots music, that just made sense.
San Diego, where an early version of HCOC used to busk in Balboa Park, missed the chance to lay claim to one of the best-loved current swing combos.
The group’s ambitious name helped keep it open to lots of musical flavors. Nearly a decade after a debut favoring old-timey/Western Swing tunes, HCOC has returned from a five-year recording hiatus to take advantage of those open doors. Guitarist and co-founder Whit Smith is back after quitting the combo four years ago, forming his Hot Jazz Caravan, and ending up with violinist and co-creator Elana James for a heap of performances anyway. James seems to have grown through the experiences of making her own CD and touring with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Jake Erwin’s soulful stand-up bass playing has been joined by the new kick of Damien Lewis’s drums.
During my first run through Wishful Thinking I mused, “This is a bit of a mish-mash.” By the second spin I was starting to hum along with its compelling marriage of Western Swing, pop standards, and originals. HCOC seems stirred by renewed vigor, from the roots-honoring of a perfect “Can’t Go On This Way” (Bob Wills) to a subtle rendition of the Gershwin classic, “Someone To Watch Over Me.” James’s increasingly versatile writing places her “Reunion” and “What You Mean To Me” near the top of my list. Smith’s catchy “If You Leave Me” could easily have been presented by the Texas Playboys. A treatment of Tom Waits’s “The Long Way Home” brings out the pathos as Kate Wolf might have done.
However good any of these parts may be, Wishful Thinking–for me one of the best “adult” (for lack of a better handle) albums of 2009 to date–succeeds as a sum of them. Like many of my favorites, the CD creates its own logical world, one in which only the title, and intuitive alchemy, can explain why elements so apparently disparate feel right together. It also accounts for my becoming more accustomed to James’s often paper-thin lead singing, which at times recalls Blossom Dearie–not my usual preference. James makes it work by phrasing like a jazz vocalist. She’s also a consummate harmonist, blending pleasantly with Smith and Erwin.
A few years ago, James shared that she was thrown enough by Smith’s departure to have considered quitting music. The permanent absence of this vital collaboration would have been dreadful. One can only thank the stars for their alignment when James posted her Village Voice ad, the one catching Smith’s attention in the mid-‘90s, which simply said she was looking for “a gigging band.” If I were on a holy roll I’d probably say this is a lesson in not giving up, or throwing in the towel when what you have is really, really good. And, no, I don’t want talented people anywhere to give up. But really I’m thinking about HCOC, and hoping they’re around for a good, long while.