DJANGO-A-GO-GO 2011: Hot Club of Detroit & Alfonso Ponticelli
$60 Combo Price buys tickets to ALL 3 shows on Friday or Saturday Night!
The family tree that traces its roots to the Quintette du Hot Club de France has sprouted countless branches across the globe in the seventy years since Django Reinhardt first jammed with Stephane Grappelli. It seems like a new city lays claim to its own Hot Club on a virtually daily basis, but the Hot Club of Detroit is undoubtedly the apple that has fallen farthest from that tree.
The blistering fretwork on the opening track of the group's third CD, It's About That Time, pays explicit homage to one of their six-string heroes - just not the one you might think. "On the Steps" is based on the chord changes of Pat Martino's "On the Stairs" (with a brief borrowing from John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" to complete the pun), and states at the outset what fans of these gypsy jazz revisionists have long known - that Django Reinhardt is far from the beginning and end of the Hot Club of Detroit's vocabulary of influences.
"Django Reinhardt is the showerhead from which we all come down," says guitarist and bandleader Evan Perri. "But if he had lived, I don't think he would've been playing the same things he had in prior years. He was constantly evolving as a jazz musician."
The Hot Club of Detroit has undergone a similar evolution since Perri formed the group in 2003 with fellow students at Wayne State University in Detroit. The ensemble rapidly accumulated accolades and audiences over the next several years, including a first-place win in the 2004 Detroit International Jazz Festival competition and multiple Detroit Music Awards. Their 2006 self-titled debut, while slightly more traditional than later releases, established their broad-minded approach to the Django resurgence.
Since that time, it's become increasingly evident that their inspiration comes as much from the spirit of Reinhardt's playing as by its much-copied sound. While they've maintained some recognizable elements - the absence of drums, the percussive "la pompe" rhythm guitar technique - the Motor City quintet apply those elements to a decidedly modern sound, refusing to be constrained by allegiance to some time-honored, purist ideal.
"To me," says rhythm guitarist Paul Brady, "Django Reinhardt was a jazz improviser like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young or any of the other great improvisers of his time. We don't approach our music as a gypsy jazz band, but 100% as a jazz group."
That approach is nowhere more evident than on the disc's title track, the Joe Zawinul-penned "It's About That Time," famously fused with "In A Silent Way" on Miles Davis' 1969 album. Brady hit upon the idea of fusing the tune instead with Reinhardt's oft-revisited "Heavy Artillerie," creating an atmospheric hybrid with a loping groove and an airy spaciousness.
The ensemble also takes on Charles Mingus' "Nostalgia in Times Square," in 5/4, with bassist Andrew Kratzat providing an appropriately brawny, wood-smacking intro and Carl Cafagna getting the Eric Dolphy tent-revival treatment with a clapalong accompaniment for his tenor solo.
Of course, Reinhardt's catalog is also plumbed for material, but other than the aforementioned "Heavy Artillerie," repertoire was found in its more shadowy, neglected corners. "We try to find Django tunes that haven't been performed to death," Brady says. "He wrote a ton of stuff so we can always find something that we can have fun and stretch out on."
"Duke and Dukie," the first Django credit to appear on this record, perfectly fits that bill, a cheery three-chord romp that serves as a vehicle for lengthy improvisations during the band's live sets. "Sweet Chorus" provides a relaxed finish to the album, easy and intimate as a front porch jam session. The fiery "Noto Swing" is provided by another Reinhardt - Lulu, a mainstay of the German gypsy jazz scene.
On each of its releases the Detroit combo has also flexed its classical muscles, beginning with Nino Rota's theme from "The Godfather" on their debut, followed by Maurice Ravel's "Tzigane" on 2008's Night Town. This time it's Frederic Chopin's "Tristesse" E Major Etude, arranged by accordionist Julien Labro, which shines a spotlight onto Cafagna's melancholy clarinet and Labro's lush bandoneon.
"All of us come from different backgrounds and have very different musical training and influences," says Labro who plays both accordion, accordina, as well as bandoneon on this release. "Individually, we collaborate with musicians from many genres and styles, from classical, jazz, to world music."
When asked about the accordion's current place in jazz, Labro is succinct: "It is not important what instruments we play. I am a musician, and the accordion just happens to be the vehicle I utilize to express my musical thoughts and ideas."
The remainder of the album consists of originals by the band members themselves: Labro's serpentine, Chick Corea-influenced "Equilibrium"; Cafagna's engaging "Restless Twilights"; "Papillon", a wistful ballad by Labro and Kratzat; Perri's aptly-named "Patio Swing"; Labro's knife-edged waltz "Sacre Bleu"; and Perri's "For Stephane" - an homage to guitarist Stephane Wrembel, not the original Hot Club of France violinist.
As wide-ranging as the album is, the one constant is the group's sense of individuality, which Perri says he encourages from each of his bandmates.
"There's no point in going out and playing music if you can't be yourself," Perri says. "Sometimes you'll hear a Wes Montgomery riff in my playing, or you might hear an Eddie Van Halen riff or a Led Zeppelin influence, because that's who I am and for me to deny that wouldn't be true to my musicianship."
"Django Reinhardt clearly is alive and well and swinging in Chicago."
-Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
"A special treat...All four musicians soloed marvelously."
"it was clear from the opening number that this band knew this music inside and out and were comfortable enough with it to throw in a few tricks of their own."
-DjangoFest Northwest review
"Chicago's pied piper of gypsy jazz."
- Mel Bay Guitar Sessions
Alfonso Ponticelli and Swing Gitan is Chicago's premier gypsy-jazz band.
The group plays the 1930s-style music of guitarist Django Reinhardt -- foot-tappin' swing played on acoustic instruments. It's a blend of the jubilant swing of early jazz with the feisty passion of gypsy music, plus a strong dose of guitar pyrotechnics and virtuosic improvisation.
Formed in 2001, Swing Gitan features bandleader Alfonso Ponticelli on lead guitar and a world-class lineup of musicians on violin, rhythm guitar and upright bass, with the occasional special guest. Over the years, they've played with many of the great contemporary gypsy-jazz players from around the world, including Bireli Lagrène, Stochelo Rosenberg, Moreno, Angelo DeBarre and the Robin Nolan Trio.
Around Chicago, Swing Gitan plays frequently at the Green Mill and Pops for Champagne. They've also played at the Chicago Cultural Center, the Field Museum, the Terra Museum of American Art, the Chicago Jazz Festival and the Chicago Summerdance Festival -- and they had the honor of performing at Millennium Park on its opening night.
Alfonso has studied gypsy-jazz music for more than a decade, having traveled several times to the annual Django Reinhardt festival in France. He introduced gypsy-jazz to Chicago in the 1990s, when he began teaching a weekly Django-style class at the renowned Old Town School of Folk Music, and he is often invited to teach his popular workshops at festivals around the country. A multi-instrumentalist, he won the 1994 U.S. National Mountain Dulcimer Championship and plays both banjo and guitar with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra. He's also a gypsy flamenco guitarist, having been to Cordoba, Spain, to study with the great flamenco guitarist Rafael Riqueni. At the Iridium in New York, Les Paul invited Alfonso to play as a special guest with his trio.