Nouveau Swing

Hot Club of Cowtown and others revive the rebel spirit of Django Reinhardt

They're the Hot Club of Cowtown, and they stand front and center in a new generation of young pickers and grinners who carry on their shoulders musical traditions that stretch back as far as the 1920s and as late as the '40s – and render those arbitrary bookends meaningless with wit, charm and energy.

The band consists of violinist Elana Fremerman, guitarist Whit Smith and bassist Jake Erwin, and what they play depends on who they play it for.

"In New York we lean on the gypsy, trad-jazz end. In Wickenburg a couple of months ago, we leaned on the Western swing side of the road," says Smith. "As much as anything, we're like a '30s Southwestern dance band, a traditional Western swing band, with a lot of jazz in it and the cosmopolitan pop music of the day, which by today's standards sounds pretty jazzy. And certainly most of those tunes were done by jazz players at the time and later on."

Newbie old-timey bands are on the rise. Here, we see Hot Club of Cowtown.
Señor McGuire
Newbie old-timey bands are on the rise. Here, we see Hot Club of Cowtown.
Reinhardt's the standard-bearer.
Reinhardt's the standard-bearer.

Details

Scheduled to perform with Riders in the Sky on Thursday, March 27. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $19 to $35. Call 602-267-1600 for more information.
Celebrity Theatre, 440 North 32nd Street

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It's the Western bent that largely separates Cowtown from the rising crop of straight gypsy swing ensembles like Florida's Pretty Boy Freud, the Hot Club of San Francisco, Pearl Django of Seattle and the Robin Nolan Trio, which hails from London. In fact, the Django Reinhardt-inspired "hot club" acts are a cottage industry unto themselves, and they often gather for Django festivals, held primarily in Europe.

For the uninitiated, Reinhardt was a gypsy guitarist who, in spite of his having a severely damaged left hand, may have been, with little disagreement, the single most remarkable jazz guitarist of the 1930s. There are certainly those who would suggest he was the best ever.

"We're really influenced by Django, who had a huge repertoire of American pop songs that he performed and recorded, as well as doing gypsy tunes, and the often forgotten musette form of music, the French popular music of the '20s," Smith says. "But we also listen to Louis Armstrong, Stuff Smith, Dixieland. If anything, we're probably closest to being like the streamlined Bob Wills Texas Swing band from the late '40s, the one on the Tiffany Transcriptions discs."

Smith adds, "Bottom line, we love what we do and we play it with complete sincerity and enthusiasm. We never play songs we don't like, we don't even play songs we're not in the mood to play. And we never treat a song tongue-in-cheek or campy. What's more, we're hyperactive people, with the same energy level as a rock band, the same conviction and energy. People can tell when we're having fun."


It all used to be more simple. Seems like there were pretty wide lines dividing jazz and country and rock 'n' roll and most other musical genres. For scholars and aficionados, there probably still are. People of a certain age or inclination back in the '40s might have listened to Glenn Miller big band swing or Dixieland and disdained the angrily defiant bebop jazz or zoot-suited rhythm and blues, for example. Up the street, their neighbor's younger brothers and sisters, or their kids, might have loved Elvis but hated more traditional hillbilly music.

Like most things, it's a question of time and taste, of holding fast to traditions while others are fast to leave them behind. Louis Armstrong was famously confused and hurt when the hepcats of the '40s treated him like a musical Uncle Tom.

In retrospect, we can see the injustice inherent in that kind of thinking, as the long view tells us something entirely different about how the forms merge and diverge. At the same time, there have always been the natural born synthesizers, the musical miscegenators who heard things, the fan boys and geeks. Elvis was a music geek who cross-pollinated Dean Martin and Big Joe Turner. Buddy Holly saw the candy-apple song "Love Is Strange," which was a novelty hit for session guitarist Mickey Baker and Sylvia Vanderpool, as a door into the future, a door away from Fender licks and hiccups. Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, a pedal steel player and guitarist who recorded primarily throughout the '50s, and who played on all kinds of sessions at Capitol Records, were wily subversives who added country to pop, jazz to country. For guys like these, they didn't hear genres or borders – they likely listened to Tito Puente with the same curiosity and adoration they had for Lefty Frizzell and Moon Mullican.

Having said all that, besides the Hot Club of Cowtown, a slew of new bands of varying size and proficiency draw on the multifurcated genres of musical history and are doing today what others did in the past – without the barriers and restrictions that kept people from digging Bob Wills on 52nd Street, for example, or from seeing hot club fiddler Stephane Grappelli on the Ryman stage.

This brash young cockeyed caravan of small bands – three-, four- and five-piece groups – make an actual decent living, playing dozens, even hundreds of gigs a year and releasing a steady string of discs on smallish labels, albums that fans are inclined to buy on the way in or out of their gigs. And few people who leave these shows leave unimpressed. It's a niche market for some topflight folks who seem to be representing an amalgam of the past, each drawing on certain elements to make a signature sound, but each sincere in their work without condescension or kitsch.

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