Hot Club of Cowtown
Stephane Grappelli meets Bob Wills
From the May, 2018 issue
The Quintette du Hot Club de France, headed by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli, was one of the greatest jazz combos of all time. Active in the 1930s and 1940s, they disbanded seventy years ago, and by now all the members are playing lyres somewhere up above, but their music and style of playing continues to inspire countless ensembles down here. There are Hot Club groups throughout Europe and in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Detroit, and elsewhere--and there is also the Hot Club of Cowtown.
The trio of Elana James (fiddle), Whit Smith (guitar), and Jake Erwin (stand-up bass) come by that name honestly; their music embodies the Hot Club style, a unique combination of jazzy harmonies, gypsy scales, and hot soloing. The Cowtown part of their moniker is also accurate--it's a nod to Western swing, the other main body of music they have lassoed to their sound. Western swing was popular during the same period as the original Hot Club of France, from the thirties till the early fifties, when it was elbowed out by rock 'n' roll. The HC of C, this year celebrating its twentieth anniversary, crosses Western swing's driving rhythms, freewheeling improvisations, and happy, high energy with the equally unfettered, joyous jazz of Reinhardt and Grappelli.
James' fiddle playing has a strong foundation in her classical training--she's got chops to spare--but she also manages simultaneously to channel Grappelli and Western swing grand master Bob Wills. She can play the heck out of "Ochi Chornye" (Dark Eyes), a gypsy tune that starts slowly then shifts gears with each repeat, from lento to presto, serene to frenzied. She can then switch just as convincingly to the sly slides of "What Makes Bob Holler." Whit Smith's hollow-body electric guitar sounds almost like a pedal steel, especially when he plays in octaves or in harmony with himself--but when he ripples some faster-than-the-legal-limit scales, you can tell he's woodshedded to the music of Reinhardt and
a host of other great pickers. Erwin's bass ably provides the harmonic underpinning of the trio's tunes, but when he shifts to slap-bass mode, it sounds like a flashy spoons player has also joined the trio on stage.
Grappelli and Reinhardt were the undisputed stars of their quintet, and most Western swing bands also had clearly defined leaders. Not so with HC of C. Whether seamlessly trading fours, smoothly joining each other in two- and three-part harmonies, or enthusiastically supporting each other's solos, the trio presents a highly satisfying unit.
Reinhardt and Grappelli's music, as well as much of Western swing, was lighthearted and cheerful, a welcome relief from the hardships of the Depression thirties and war-torn forties. The Hot Club of Cowtown's unique melange, toggling cheerfully between those styles, serves a similar function today.
The Hot Club of Cowtown plays the Ark Wednesday, May 2 (See Nightspots).
[Originally published in May, 2018.]
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