Concert Review — Hot Club of San Francisco

March 18, 2012 by  

HCSF2-2I recently attended a delightful and unusual jazz concert at the Society of the Four Arts, at Palm Beach, Florida. The performing group was the Hot Club of San Francisco (HCSF). The HCSF is a Gypsy jazz band (I mentioned them in my jazz guitarist of the world blog a few weeks ago). By Gypsy jazz, I mean that they play the music popularized by and in the style of Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, who performed as a group from the mid 1930s until the beginning of WWII in 1940.

The Quintet of the Hot Club of France was lead (a rather loose term as it turns out) by French gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Django was a true Manouche Gypsy, descended from dozens of generations of Gypsies, who, as conscripts left India to fight Muslim invaders in the 11th century. The new book Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz, by Michael Dregni, described the history of the various Gypsy tribes as they migrated throughout Europe over the period of almost 1000 years, as well as the story and music of Django and his successors. Briefly, Django grew up in a musical family, and was accomplished in a number of instruments including guitar, bass, violin, and others, and was just beginning to make a name for himself when he was severely burned in a trailer fire. He almost lost a leg, and his left hand was horribly disfigured due to tendon damage that paralyzed and deformed his third and fourth finger. Even with this damage, over an 18 month time period, Django relearned to play his guitar, modifying his playing style to make up for his lack of dexterity, and created an entirely new sound. Even with his problems, he was lightning-fast and learned to use his damaged fingers to partially fret the first and even the second strings. He was also a musical sponge. He couldn’t read music (nor could he read and write until very late in his brief life), but with one hearing, could perform the tune, with new and inventive improvisations. He was deeply influenced by the music of Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Bix Beiderbecke, and the guitar/violin duo of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, which he melded into traditional gypsy music. He put a group together with his guitarist brother and another guitar player, a bassist, and violinist Stephane Grappelli. They recorded extensively throughout the 1930s and briefly got back together after WWII, when Django began taking in the influences of American bebop, being played by US soldiers stationed in Paris and elsewhere. He continued to grow musically up to his sudden, tragic death due to a stroke in 1953. He was 43 years old.

Gypsy music is mainly performed with stringed instruments: guitar, bass, violin, and may also include accordion, and rarely brass instruments. The hallmark of the Gypsy sound is a very heavy rhythm beat. The rhythm guitars provide percussion effects as well as the guitar sounds. Over a number of years, a particular rhythm style known as le pompe was developed, and is immediately recognizeable. Playing le pompe is hard work. Rhythm players have to maintain an often breakneck tempo without skipping a beat, so they need strong forearms. The string height on these specially-designed Gypsy guitars is relatively high, requiring great strength in their left hand to keep playing for long sets.

The music of Django Reinhardt’s was ignored by the general public the next 20 years or so, but slowly began a resurgence. By the late 1970s it was back in full force with players like Babik Reinhardt (Django’s son), the incredibly young Bireli Lagrene who recorded his first album at age 13, and scores of others. By the late 1980s, there were dozens of Gypsy and non-Gypsy performing groups playing the music of Django Reinhardt to great acclaim, all over the world. The Hot Club of San Francisco was formed as this music, and swing music in general, began to achieve wide popularity.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzXkzDm7bkE

The concert began with a fine up-tempo piece that pleased everyone in the crowd except for rhythm guitarist Jason Vanderford who suffered a broken string (I truly felt his pain). He continued to play rhythm chords, but at the end of the first tune, he beat a dignified retreat to the stage left wings to replace the broken string. The show went on while this was going on with leader Paul “Pazzo” Mehling doing a beautiful rendition of Django’s Tears, with expert accompaniment by violinist Olivier Manchon, bassist Art Munkres, and their second rhythm guitarist, Jeff Magidson.

Frankly, I was so wrapped up in the music, I failed to keep track of what tunes were being played. The group played about six or seven tunes when they moved to the other part of the performance: Silent Surrealism. Basically, the band played selected music behind four short silent films, chosen for their artistic merit, and an interesting link back to the Gypsies. Two films by American director Charley Bowers, a contemporary of Charlie Chaplin, It’s a Bird (1930), a really funny tale about a metal eating bird, and Now You Tell One (1926), were shown. These prints were actually shown by Gypsies in Europe, who would travel from town to town, and project the films on the side of a large building to paying customers–these two films were actually digitized from prints found in the possession of European Gypsies. Both films demonstrated great innovation and comedy. They were deeply steeped in the tradition of the tall tale, and made heavy use of stop-motion animation and other state of the art (for the 1920s) special effects.

The remaining two films, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), directed by James Sibley Watson Jr., and The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912), directed by Harold Shaw, and produced by Thomas Edison, were fine miniatures in their own right. The Fall of the House of Usher used amazing special film effects, mainly done within the camera, that would make the best German directors of the time envious. The final film, Thomas Edison’s The Land Beyond the Sunset, is a touching tale of a poor young boy who is enamored of a storybook tale. The poignant and ambiguous ending leaves you with a small tear and a small smile.

It was a wonderful concert, one that left me wishing for more. Afterwards, the band members came out to the auditorium lobby to sign CDs and t-shirts they had for sale, and chatted with members of the audience. I got a chance to tell them the story of the time my uncle, the late Andy Nelson, played for Django, who was touring with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1946.

The Hot Club of San Francisco is at the very top of their game, and one of the finest Gypsy jazz groups on the scene. If they are playing near you, run, do not walk to the ticket counter. If you can’t wait, buy their CDs at all the usual online places (you probably won’t find these CDs at your neighborhood music merchant, unless your neighborhood has a Virgin Megastore, or other such music superstore–most of those are gone now) such as Amazon.com, TowerRecords.com, Barnes and Noble (I didn’t mention Borders or Virgin Megastore online stores, because they are managed by Amazon.com), or download from the iTunes Store or emusic.com. You can also purchase HCSF CDs at their own website, and you can see them performing two tunes on this YouTube link.

I wrote this review in 2008. The HCSF recently (Feb. 2012) returned to S. Florida, doing a concert at the Watson B. Duncan Theater at Palm Beach College at Lake Worth, FL. They did another wonderful variation on the silent films theme, with a few new personnel. I was also able to come up with an iPhone moment. During the intermission, a nice lady sitting next to me wondered if the director (Charlie Bowers) was the lead actor in a really funny silent film (accompanied by expertly-played gypsy jazz). Well, after taking the phone out of Airplane Mode (you do do that in a theater, don’t you?), I went to the IMDB (International Movie Database) and looked up the film. I was able to tell my seatmate that indeed, Charlie Bowers did play the lead role in the flick. Another iPhone moment! Oh, and I did remember to put my phone back into Airplane Mode before the concert resumed.