If it’s true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Django Reinhardt, were he still living, would feel very flattered indeed. Since his death in 1953, a whole jazz subgenre devoted to Reinhardt’s music has grown up. Numerous Hot Club bands throughout the world style themselves after his famous Quintette du Hot Club de France, the band he formed in 1934 with violinist Stephane Grappelli. But unlike Elvis impersonators or Beatles tribute bands that mimic their heroes, Django emulators do not ape his clothing, haircut, or hip gyrations–none of which were, in his case, particularly distinctive. They play his music, which was.
One of the more intriguing bands to don Django’s musical mantle is the Boston-based quintet Occidental Gypsy. The band very capably recreates the Hot Club sound: founder Brett Feldman’s guitar playing nimbly echoes Django’s gypsy scales, bluesy string bending, and hummingbird-wing tremolos, while violinist Eli Bishop’s tone, high-speed runs, and arpeggios are instantly reminiscent of Grappelli. But in other ways, Occidental Gypsy sets itself apart from both the original and current Hot Club bands.
Unlike the original Quintette, where mostly either Reinhardt or Grappelli soloed, Occidental Gypsy’s Feldman shares solos not only with Bishop, but also with guitarist Jeremy Frantz. While the original Hot Club, as well as most current ones, only occasionally featured a singer, Frantz regularly contributes his high, smoky tenor. And the instrumental lineups differ. Reinhardt and Grappelli’s consisted of three acoustic guitars, a violin, and a string bass. (Reinhardt is supposed to have insisted on two rhythm guitar players so when he soloed he’d have as big a backing sound as Grappelli did.) Occidental Gypsy substitutes drums for the third guitar, and Erick Cifuentes often plays an unconventional kit, replacing the traditional bass drum with a Peruvian cajOn.
But it’s Occidental Gypsy’s repertoire that really sets it apart from many current Hot Club bands. Reinhardt was a prolific composer, and many of his pieces have become jazz standards. Occidental Gypsy mines that treasure trove of tunes with faithful and yet inventive renditions of “Minor Swing,” “Nuages,” and others–but they also craft hot swing versions of unlikely candidates, like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” that are way out of the jazz canon. And Feldman’s original tunes, like the flamenco-flavored “Con Passion” or the Latin “Betty’s Bossa,” are instantly recognizable as growing out of Djangoesque territory while expanding its borders.
Occidental Gypsy comes to the Kerrytown Concert House on Sunday, August 21.