Swing That Thing
by David McCarty
The seductive sound of gypsy jazz has outgrown the Parisian cafés and smoky Manouche campgrounds where it originated and is now infiltrating such mainstream cultural conduits as automobile ads on TV. Three recent releases demonstrate the new level of maturity and sophistication reached by artists reviving the styles of Django Reinhardt and the quintet of the Hot Club of France and other swing-based acoustic string bands.
The band Pearl Django came together by accident when several Django disciples got together to back up touring guitarist and noted swing specialist Ian Cruickshank for a few dates in the Pacific Northwest. That happy accident has grown over a series of three CDs to become one of the most capable and intelligent swing revival bands on either side of the Atlantic. Mystery Pacific captures this quintet at the height of its creative powers. The record’s 15 tunes range from famous anthems of Gypsy swing such as “Anouman,” “Daphne,” and “Blue Drag” to string-band interpretations of jazz classics like “Lester Leaps In.” The three guitarists—Dudley Hill, Shelley Park, and Neil Andersson—all contribute great solo and rhythm work, Hill on a classic Gibson L-5 archtop and Park and Andersson on Selmer-style guitars build by Park. Paul Mehling, one of America’s foremost Django stylists and the leader of the Hot Club of San Francisco, joins them on two tunes.
The band’s great strength, in addition to its ability to reinterpret classic Gypsy jazz material with class and taste, is its obvious love of all things swing. Hill’s punchy, percussive archtop rhythm and lead playing propel the band in Freddie Gree–like directions few other groups can navigate.
The death of Reinhardt’s musical soulmate, violinist Stéphane Grappelli, has inspired many artists to prepare tributes to this legendary jazz musician. Pearl Django’s violinist Michael Gray has assembled his bandmates and other musicians to record Souvenirs: Stéphane Grappelli Remembered, a ten-song retrospective of some of Grappelli’s most haunting and inspiring material.
Gray opens with the timeless “Minor Swing” and moves through such standards as “Pent-Up House,” “Tears,” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” paying homage not only to Grappelli’s ample skills as an improviser but also to his gorgeous tone and touch on violin. Guitarists Andersson, Hill, and Park provide super backup and solos, such as the fiery pentatonic work on “Pent-Up House” and Hill’s solo guitar introduction to “Tears.”
Martin Taylor and David Grisman were also touched to their musical cores by Grappelli. Both men toured and recorded with the late artist, and those experiences must have helped forge the strong musical bond between them. In 1995, they recorded the duet CD Tone Poems II, which featured Grisman and Taylor playing a variety of classic archtop guitars and mandolins, and they’ve now reunited as the Taylor/Grisman Acoustic Jazz Quartet to record I’m Beginning to See the Light, a collection of 12 jazz standards.
Taylor’s immaculate jazz guitar tone and tsunami-like creative expression make this set a must-have for fans of acoustic jazz guitar. Grisman, unfettered by the demands of his own Dawg-music heritage, is free to explore new progressions and techniques and sounds fresher and more energized here than he has in years. Backed by Grisman Quintet bassist Jim Kerwin and drummer George Marsh, the Taylor/Grisman collaboration on such popular standards as “Autumn Leaves” and Willow Weep for Me” is a creative tour de force, with both musicians pushing each other to the musical edge.
Taken together, these three CDs reveal an impressive depth and maturity in the swing music revival that’s been building momentum among acoustic guitarists and jazz lovers worldwide. As the song says, we’re all finally beginning to see the light.