Hot Club of Cowtown brings western swing, gypsy jazz to town
The Austin-based trio Hot Club of Cowtown are known the world over for their infectiously energetic embrace of a variety of styles with a focus on western swing and gypsy jazz.
Since forming over a decade ago, Hot Club of Cowtown has cheerfully ignored established musical borderlines to create a joyful and compelling sound that is very much their own. Case in point: The trio’s name is a reflection of their love of the Django Reinhardt/Stéphane Grappelli music (creators of so-called “gypsy jazz”) of the Hot Club de France as well as western swing as popularized by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys and others.
Quick recap: We’re talking a style of jazz originated by a Paris-based quartet led by a Gypsy guitarist in the 1930s; we’re talking about the rollicking country sounds of the honky-tonks and dancehalls of mid-century Texas, Oklahoma, and California. And we are talking about a band brazenly blending these two seemingly disparate forms of music — jazz and country — and having it work. Let’s be clear: we are talking about something so gutsy that, if imagined and undertaken by lesser bands than Hot Club of Cowtown, the result would be choppy at the best whiplashing listeners back and forth between genres. However, in the capable hands and creative minds of Hot Club of Cowtown, western swing and hot gypsy jazz join together and take a spin across the dance floor.
Hot Club of Cowtown has certainly not locked itself into strictly adhering to these two forms of music; since releasing their first album fifteen years ago, Hot Club has included spicy versions of fiddle tunes (“Orange Blossom Special”; “Cherokee Shuffle”), selections from the Great American Songbook (George and Ira Gershwin’s “Someone To Watch Over Me”), vintage American pop and jazz (Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust”) and originals (Elana James’ “Reunion”; Whit Smith’s “Emily”) along with hot jazz stylings and western swing classics (Bob Wills’ “I Laugh When I Think How I Cried Over You”).
This grand musical mixing works so well for Hot Club of Cowtown because of the individual members’ virtuosic mastery of their instruments, the trio’s chemistry and communication, an unerring ear for arranging (be it within a song, a set, or an album), and, ultimately, the sheer joy they find in playing this music and sharing it with audiences.
Each member of Hot Club of Cowtown contributes a host of essential ingredients. Elana James (fiddle and vocals) combines technical mastery, a deep knowledge of fiddle styles from Oklahoma to Appalachia as well as Grappelli’s hot jazz violin, and an ear for incorporating elements of other traditions (occasional flashes of eastern Europe bubble to the surface) into blazing symphonic solos that bring people to their feet, dreamily soothing treatments of waltzes, and the under-appreciated but essential rhythm and background harmony roles to support her bandmates.
Whit Smith (guitar and vocals) lays down Django-esque lightning fast and incredibly clear solos and inventive harmonic chords on his vintage guitar. Jake Erwin (bass and vocals), with his show-stopping slap-style playing simultaneously provides the bass line and the percussion, as well as solos that literally get audiences cheering. James and Smith trade lead vocal duties; all three sing harmony. James, Smith, and Erwin trade solos, quick smiles, and cheers (“Yeah!” “That’s right; that’s right!”) throughout their shows, filling the stage — and the theater — with both their catchy music and the very catching fun they have in making it.
In addition to their own global tours (western swing music in Azerbaijan via the State Department, anyone?), Hot Club of Cowtown has toured extensively with the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, The Mavericks, and Roxy Music. In 2004 they were inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame — some of the youngest musicians to every be honored thus.
The Hot Club of Cowtown will perform at The Palms in Winters on Thursday, Jan. 24, at 8 p.m., and will be playing selections from their very broad catalogue as well as previewing numbers from their forth-coming album “Rendezvous in Rhythm,” which is due out later this year.
Tickets for Hot Club of Cowtown’s show are $20, and are available at at Pacific Ace Hardware in Winters, Armadillo Music in Davis, Watermelon Music in Woodland, and at the door if not sold out. For more information, call 795-1825 or visit palmsplayhouse.com or hotclubofcowtown.com.
Friday, Jan. 25 — The Freight & Salvage in Berkeley as part of Esprit de Django et Stephane Festival. http://hotclubofcowtown.com/tour/