MUSIC: Strings the Thing

In 1934, the soulful gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt – could anyone besides Sean Penn adequately portray him on screen? – was playing in the cafés of Paris when the leader of the Hot Club of France invited him to join an all-string group. Reinhardt became the blues-stretching alter ego to the grand violinist, Stephane Grapelli, who spun off swing rhythms like silk between the fingers.

Jump cut across time taking us to the acoustic swing music of the Hot Club of New Orleans. This predominately string ensemble – guitars, violin, bass – with Christopher Kohl on clarinet, is no French jazz knockoff. The seamless quality of this band, moving across time zones of the jazz canon, is a rare act in a city that rolls to an Afro-pulsing street groove. 

Big band swing on both sides of the Atlantic was a sound of sophisticated city life, all the heat and elegance of people decked out for ballrooms and smaller clubs, dancing through the financial hard times of the 1930s and the fearful war years of the ‘40s.
The new Hot Club, with five or six players on a given cut, holds a tight groove in furnishing a sleek urbanity. There’s a reason why this band has become a mainstay in clubs like d.b.a. and Mimi’s in the Marigny. As the funk-driven brass bands with the section-riffing horns that echo the struggle of the streets, the Hot Club has a following with young professionals (okay, older ones, too) for delivering the moody love tunes and driving swing rhythms to tamp down a flood and crime battered psyche with messages of romance and hope.

Matt Rhody is a dazzling violinist who puts the heat into “Minor Swing,” a gem of the Grappelli and Django canon. Rhody’s long, sinuous curls roam to the rapid-fire tempo of the guitarists Todd Duke and David Mooney as Rhody sizzles down to Adam Booker’s thrumming lines on the stand-up bass – a big churning sound to fill up your thought screen with a picture of some paddle-wheeler rolling down the river.

The song is from the second CD, a 2004 issue More! that delivers more, with two other bassists on different cuts, Peter Harris and Matt Perrine. The band infuses the Duke Ellington composition, “Azalea,” with sweet intimations of love in the U.S. tropics. Christopher Kohl opens on clarinet, to spare strings, with a long lazy waltz emoting the tenderness of tea dancers in a big solarium, light dousing the pale curtains. Kohl’s reed work sets a sumptuous mood as David Mooney sings with a slow, glistening tenor:

It was such a fine spring day
Down Louisiana way
With fragrance divine
Such magnificent regalia
Oh, so fine – azalea
Oh what a lovely sight
In red, blue and white…
Ladies, may we have this dance?     
 

The band shifts to a darker emotional coloration with “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon,” a German jump blues (I know, sounds contradictory, but we deal in brevity here) made famous by Louis Prima and Keely Smith in the 1950s. Anything by Prima and Smith occupies its own stratosphere; yet the first time I listened to the song I was still unprepared for the sheer sadness the Hot Club achieves on the song, without vocals – same melody but what a different tune they make. Matt Rhody’s violin is practically weeping and Chris Kohl’s clarinet runs a counter-voice of melancholy that together echo the Jewish klezmer style with hints of Reinhardt in the rhythm chords by guitarists Duke and Mooney. The whole piece is so tightly articulated as to suggest these guys could play it in their sleep.

However large the temptation to compare Hot Club of New Orleans with the gypsy jazz of Reinhardt, the truth is that they are grounded in an American vernacular tradition, taking standards and remaking them with their own distinctive signature. On their first CD, named for the band, they take a gritty tune out of the Muddy Waters’ song bag, “Little Brown Bird,” and turn it into an ethereal ballad as different from the Delta blues as their version of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” is from the pumping Las Vegas vocals of Prima and Smith. That is serious musicianship.

The Hot Club of New Orleans displays great range and in times such as these, the texture of their sound sings hope to a troubled town.

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