“It takes considerable bravery to name your band after one of the greatest jazz ensembles of the last century. Hot Club get away with it because they have spirit, originality and skill that would surely have impressed Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt back in 1930’s.”
– The Guardian
You’d think a band from Austin, Texas with the word “Cowtown” in its name spends its time off from touring herding cattle at a west Texas ranch or maybe in Nashville writing songs about whiskey and loose women. Not the Hot Club of Cowtown. “We recently took a band vacation to the Gypsy Festival at St. Maries de la Mer in the South of France,” says the band’s fiddler and vocalist, Elana James. Whit Smith, the band’s guitar player and vocalist, is a regular at the prestigious Djangofest Northwest in Whidbey, Island, Washington, and don’t tell anyone, but bass player Jake Erwin has the Hungarian folk band Csokolom in regular rotation on his home stereo.
“Our band is fiddle, guitar, and bass, and they can do anything together. We’ve always played a combination of hot jazz and Western swing, but it’s been really a joy to finally distill part of our essence and serve up a record that is purely jazzy,” says James, who in a fitting reflection of the band’s mission statement was a one-time horse wrangler in Colorado, as well as a former student of Classical music at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France. Says Smith, “Once Elana became aware that in jazz music and swing, you could express yourself more in improvisation, I think that attracted her to it. She still likes Classical, and I do too.” Smith grew up hearing his parents play lots of folk music , especially acoustic blues, but as a teenager, he naturally rebelled and turned sharply toward hard rock, which still informs his approach to hot jazz and Western Swing. “Even if I¹m doing straight jazz, stuff, I tend to attack the music like a rock’n¹roller. ²I¹ve always liked the playing on-the-edge of-your chair vs. slouched down with your eyes away from the audience. I like to interact with the audience.” Also, says James, the impression that the band is in some way a country act, especially in the current climate of American popular music, is somewhat misleading since the Hot Club’s influences have always been as much the musette music of the smoky bistros of 1930’s Paris as they are the hoedowns and Western swing of the mythic American west.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the Hot Club of Cowtown, who’s collection of recorded work now stretches to seven studio albums, is finally releasing RENDEZVOUS IN RHYTHM, a thrilling peek into this Texas trio’s breathtaking virtuosity and, for the first time with such focus, its elegant, more European inspirations. A collection of fourteen fiery Gypsy jazz and American songbook standards, this is the Hot Club’s first album to exclusively celebrate the band’s Left-Bank influences. “We had lots of people asking us to make a record of standards,” says Smith, “So there you go, here¹s a record full of swing standards. We¹re not trying to compete with anyone who¹s writing the songs. It¹s more of a vehicle for one way we really like to play--starting with familiar ground and then improvising from there.” By way of inspiration James adds that “One of the most thrilling nights of my life was when Gheorghe Anghel (the violinist from legendary Romanian Gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks) came over to my house and he and Whit and I jammed on songs like Avalon and Exactly Like You in my living room ‘till four in the morning. And then he asked if he could use my phone to call home to Romania. It was absolutely the coolest thing ever.”
We can all be grateful then, for whatever inspiration an insistent fan base or a visiting Romanian fiddler may have sparked, for RENDEZVOUS IN RHYTHM is an utterly superb collection of traditional material, by far the Hot Club’s most polished and sophisticated work to date. From the first hypnotic phrases of the lead track “Ochi Chornye” (A Russian folk song also known as “Dark Eyes”) which builds from an atmospheric reverie into a frenzy a la Ravel’s Bolero, RENDEZVOUS IN RHYTHM takes us on a lively, deeply satisfying journey of raw joy and authentic energy. Disarmingly intimate ballads (If I Had You, I’m Confessin’), give way to instrumental virtuosity in the extreme (Dark Eyes, Minor Swing, Douce Ambiance) with a sensational collection of tastefully reinvented standards thrown in along the way. Pre-WWII influences abound throughout, as with “Back in Your Own Backyard,” a classic made famous by Billie Holliday, Al Jolson’s “Avalon,” and Fred Loesser’s “Slow Boat to China.” “Crazy Rhythm,” through which James sings and swings with sassy authority--including an obscure verse on fiddling while Rome burns--first appeared in 1928 but sounds as current as any of the band’s original material. “The Continental,” a Reinhardt and Grappelli show piece, has been intricately rearranged by Smith, who’s vocal and hot twin lines warn of the dangers of dancing and the spells it can cast. Smith’s lush treatment of the Fields and McHugh masterpiece “I’m in the Mood for Love,” is worth the price of admission alone.
Though many songs in this collection of American songbook or Tin Pan alley standards--some of the finest and most familiar songs in history--have been resuccitated in recent years by major artists (most notably Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, Tony Bennet and Paul McCartney to name but a few), RENDEZVOUS IN RHYTHM is the first collection by a major touring act to ignite this material with the danceable, swinging vivaciousness that first put it on the map. In order to capture lightning in a bottle, says Smith, “We went back to our way of having everyone in the room together. We recorded it live, right there next to each other so we could hear each other play. I play acoustic on it - not big news, but usually in the past, I would play a mixture of electric and acoustic and sometimes overdub the electric guitar or vice versa. The majority of this album is the three of us there and playing acoustic. We tried to capture the feel of our live shows as much as possible. When we get up on stage, the energy of just comes out naturally, and that can be the thing that’s difficult to convey in a recording. I actually think the last two records we’ve made, What Makes Bob Holler (a Western swing tribute to Bob Wills) and the new one--that’s been the trick, putting that juice into it and really pulling that off.”