Music review: Hot Club brings skill, spirit to jazz, Guthrie songs

Old art can endure. It requires committed artists who care enough to make it their work, enough to e

Related story

For Gazette music writer Brian McElhiney’s preview of this show, click here.

Old art can endure. It requires committed artists who care enough to make it their work, enough to eke out a living pursuing that esoteric passion. The Hot Club of Cowtown are three musicians playing the music of gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, music that thrived in the ’40s.

On Wednesday, they filled up WAMC’s The Linda — yes, on a weeknight. As violinist Elana James said before the third song, “We never know what to expect, so this makes us feel wonderful.”

With Jake Erwin on bass and Whit Smith on guitar the three played upbeat jazz standards and knee-slapping mountain music as well, like Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills.”

Specifically the show was promoting their latest release, “What Makes Bob Holler,” a tribute to Bob Wills. But let’s be clear, the album was not a tribute to all of Bob Wills, only their favorite Bob Wills era, explained James, “the late ’30s to the mid-’40s.” A little esoteric for sure, but the music jumped and jived as fresh as anything moving today.

Erwin is an old-school bass slapper. That’s different than “slappin’ the bass” today, like Victor Wooten or Stanley Clarke, who use their thumb to thump the electric instrument. Erwin slaps an upright acoustic bass with the palm of his hand; he hits it hard, keeping the bottom end sturdy, while also providing a percussive beat on the faster, more aggressive tunes.

They played things like the old country song “Dark Eyes,” “She’s Killing Me,” “The Devil Ain’t Lazy,” and a somber tune from their new one called “Cause Time Changes Everything.” Smith sang a clever original about insomnia called “Sleep.”

Another original he sang was “When I Lost You,” a sad, slow number that would serve well as a soundtrack to a Humphrey Bogart movie, particularly James’ eerie solo. They were always careful to pick up the pace and tone after these, as they did here with “Stay a Little Longer.”

James fiddled away on “The Acorn Hill Breakdown.” While they’re a tight swing-trio that excels as a unit, James seemed to steal the show with her violin playing. She can strike a wide range of emotion, doesn’t overplay her thoughts with a gazillion notes — rather cuts right to it, sometimes with a beatific grin, or a thoughtful, serious expression. Her singing also added the most colorful — and nostalgic — spots, as she did with “What Is the Matter with the Mill.”

James told us that she recently sang the Mill song in Texas, and was told by a native that he never heard a “gal sing it.” Hard to picture James in Texas, or Kansas, where she grew up. Much easier to picture her in Barnard College, where she attended.

To be sure, Smith can play his guitar. And his vocals have that ’40s intonation, which seem to come natural for him, as in the song “Right or Wrong.”

They talked a bit, which was welcomed by the audience. But, unlike most acts these days, they felt compelled to cut the chatter short and get to the music.

Reinhardt’s jazz guitar style is still being taught today, the mark of an enduring artist for sure, though there were no youngsters in the audience — not even 20-somethings. Still, his music clearly lives on — and can be felt in current music — and Hot Club can take some credit for that.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

Leave a Reply