The modest bandleader
by arwulf arwulf
From the March, 2014 issue
Around 2010, when a certain modest, good-natured young guitarist began sitting in with established traditional jazz masters James Dapogny and Paul Klinger, it became clear once again that no style or genre belongs exclusively to one generation. Alexander Belhaj was born in 1985 in Farmington Hills, of blended Moroccan, Spanish, German, and Swedish ancestry. His interest in the guitar was kindled by the sounds of Nirvana and the West Coast ska-punk band Sublime, and Eric Clapton's Unplugged led him to investigate Robert Johnson, Elmore James, and the driving rhythms of Johnson's "Dust My Broom." Belhaj would eventually take lessons at the Herb David Guitar Studio and study privately with pianist Tad Weed. He recalls being moved to tears by a rehearsal tape of Billie Holiday singing "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."
His personal pantheon of musical heroes has grown to include swing guitarist Al Casey, early modernist Charlie Christian, staunch traditionalist Eddie Condon, Romani guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt, western swing archetype Bob Wills, and Hawaiian lap steel wizard Sol Hoopii. Long connected to U-M's student-run WCBN-FM, Belhaj cites radio broadcasts of historic early jazz and blues recordings as a powerful inspiration. He made the decision to form his Crescent City Quartet while under the spell of vintage recordings by clarinetist Joe Marsala, cornetist Muggsy Spanier, and New Orleans reedman Sidney Bechet.
Belhaj has engaged in busking tours of mainland Europe and makes periodic pilgrimages to New Orleans, where he thrives in the friendly, collective musical atmosphere of the French Quarter Festivals. Back home in Ann Arbor, jamming with Klinger's Easy Street Jazz Band at the Zal Gaz Grotto or gigging with Dapogny in clubs closer to downtown, Belhaj has flourished as an instrumentalist and bandleader. He is not a flashy guitarist. Some of his quartet's best chemistry stems directly from his intuitive interactions with bassist Jordan Schug. The warmth of cornetist Dave Kosmyna's tone and technique recall the majesty of Fats Waller's star trumpeter
Kosmyna is the perfect foil for clarinetist Ray Heitger, who for years has led his own Cakewalkin' Jass Band in Toledo. Both men are capable of tossing off impassioned vocals. Heitger is prone to delivering gutbucket lyrics with the gusto of a confirmed rapscallion. A joyous irreverence sets in when all four belt out the words to Bechet's devil-may-care opus "Viper Mad." In August 2013, Alex Belhaj's Crescent City Quartet brought out Sugar Blues, a sturdy album of old-school jazz, blues, and spirituals. Their CD release concert will take place at Kerrytown Concert House March 27.
[Originally published in March, 2014.]