Music News

Nouveau Swing

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."

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.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It was during the post-World War II era that the musical universe was shifting on its axis in a number of entirely new directions. Swing, the music of Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw, began to dry up, and its hip cousin bebop was commanding attention, along with its brother, Latin jazz. Its other cousin, rhythm and blues, was in its prime Louis Jordan and Slim Gaillard were doing the flat foot floogie with a floy floy!

Over in hillbilly holler, Tennessee Ernie Ford and others were helping to invent a crossbred country-boogie thing that pointed right to Elvis and the rockabilly kids, who were five years down the road, while Bill Haley and His Comets turned R&B and swing into rock 'n' roll. It was a glorious mess.

Other acts joining the Hot Club of Cowtown on their past-blast, mix-and-match revival include San Francisco's Johnny Dilks and His Visitacion Valley Boys, who passed through Phoenix in February; Deke Dickerson, who has a new disc called Deke Dickerson in 3-Dimensions! split up into equal sections of R&B, rockabilly and Western bop; and then there's Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys.

Big Sandy is actually Robert Williams, and when New Times spoke to him on his cell phone the other day, he and his Fly-Rite Boys were spinning their wheels in a snowstorm, somewhere on the Colorado border, and were desperately hoping they could somehow negotiate their way to a gig at Harvey's Wagon Wheel hotel and casino in Central City, Colorado. It wasn't looking all that good.

Big Sandy has a new disc out in April called It's Time, which is the usual fine mix of hillbilly heartbreakers, rockabilly and Texas swing, and Williams had this to say about being stranded on the borders of musical genres: "I'd like to have the lines be just as blurred within the framework of what we do as it has been in the past, in musical history. I don't want people to say, well, here's a jazz song, here's a blues or rockabilly song. I want all the influences to mix together and maybe we can take all that old stuff and come up with something entirely new."

Who knows? Worked for Django.

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Henry Cabot Beck