Hot Club of Detroit
Gypsy Jazz a la Motown
by Piotr Michalowski
Jazz has always been popular in Europe, but for decades all that the best Europeans musicians could do was to imitate, with only partial success, their heroes from across the ocean. Today, jazz is an international style, played with great technical ability all over the world, and it is therefore sometimes hard to imagine just how difficult it was for Europeans to learn how to swing. Drummers were particularly offensive in this respect. But in 1934 a French label released the first recordings of a novel group that called itself the Quintette du Hot Club de France, led by a Belgian-born Gypsy guitarist named Django Reinhardt, and the French violinist Stephane Grappelli, backed by a rhythm section of two guitars and a bass. They played American standards like "Dinah," but in a manner that combined Gypsy and French dance music with jazz. This was, without a doubt, the first original European jazz. Grappelli spent the war years in England, but other than that, the group stayed together, off and on, until 1948.
Reinhardt, who had developed an astounding solo guitar style, died in 1953, but his legacy has lived on, passed on to his guitarist son and to many others who have continued to play in his manner all over Europe and elsewhere. There are a number of Reinhardt festivals each year, and Hot Club quintets exist in many countries, carrying the Gypsy Jazz tradition.
One of these is the Hot Club of Detroit. Founded by guitarist Evan Perry, it started out as a Django Reinhardt tribute band, but quickly began to develop rather than merely re-create the legacy of the great Belgian Gypsy master. Their instrumentation is unique, eschewing the traditional lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, and violin of Reinhardt-type groups. The Hot Club currently consists of Paul Brady (rhythm guitar), Julien Labro (button accordion, accordina), Carl Cafagna (tenor and soprano saxophones), and Shannon Wade (bass), in addition to Perry's lead guitar. All are highly trained musicians;
they come from different places, but most of them met while studying music at Wayne State University
The Hot Club also avoids antiquarianism by means of humor. Who else would have thought of taking the 1928 tune "Coquette" and turning it into a samba, or playing "Blues Up and Down," the anthem of tenor saxophone duels, on an accordion? Cafagna has a great mastery of the saxophone, but does not overwhelm the ensemble. Perry has an amazing grasp of the Reinhardt style, with a guitar technique that allows him to build upon his model and bring it into the new century. Julien Labro is an accordion master who can make the instrument swing better than anyone I have ever heard; he has a lovely sense of melody that fits right in with the style of the band. Most important, the Hot Club is moving in a new direction, creating a modern, rhythmically and harmonically sophisticated vision of its original model, and thus keeping it truly alive. They perform at the Kerrytown Concert House on Wednesday, September 23.
[Originally published in September, 2009.]