BY PETER HUMMERS | The west-coast gypsy-jazz outfit the Hot Club of San Francisco came to the First Flight High School for the Outer Banks Forum concert Saturday. Leader Paul Mehling called the evening “Django 101,” referring to the legendary Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt, who led the Hot Club of France in the 1930’s and ’40’s.
Mehling was more like a minister, though, preaching the gospel of Django while effacing his own preaching skills. A phenomenal guitarist, and playing the same model of rare guitar that Reinhardt used, he was able to replicate that rare sound that intoxicates guitarists and others lucky enough to hear it.
But he took care to justify everything he played (his own music, Reinhardt’s and others’) with Django. “We operate on the principal of What if Django were alive today,” he said. “WWDD? If you think that’s funny, we want you to know that Django loves you.” While playing, he saw only as far as his own fleet fingers.
And his band was supremely up to it as well. The personnel onstage was Django’s invention, the gypsy jazz band: a bass (Clint Baker), two rhythm guitarists (Isabelle Fontaine and Jeff Magidson) instead of drums, a violin (Evan Price) instead of a trumpet or saxophone, and a solo guitar (Mehling) instead of a trumpet or saxophone or clarinet. No drums, no piano, but a lot of strings.
They played Mehling’s own compositions, opening with “Don’t Panic,” a full-immersion primer into “gypsy jazz.” A unison guitar/violin verse was the jumping off point for some high-speed improvisation and a stop-time bass solo.
They played historical examples from the roots of the genre, like “Flambee Montalbanese,” a “waltz musette,” a delicate but uptempo dance tune from the (previous) turn of the century, described as a recipe for gypsy jazz: classical music, traditional gypsy music, dance music and jazz, which was new at the time.
Mehling talked about Reinhardt: an illiterate gypsy born in a wagon in 1910, a guitar prodigy. “He was a prodigy, like Beethoven and Mozart, but because he was a gypsy, and because he played jazz, he wasn’t as recognized as Beethoven or Mozart.”
And he talked about Stephane Grapelli, the sophisticated French violinist that Reinhardt teamed up with, and their travails: Since jazz was an American music, and therefore “correctly” played only by Americans, it took a few years for them to get a recording contract, but on the strength of their talent and popularity, the Hot Club of France wound up with RCA Victor, then the largest record company in the world.
Of course the Hot Club of San Francisco played Reinhardt’s own music, including “Diminishing Blackness,” composed in a bomb shelter during WWII, and “Tears,” based on a traditional gypsy tune, described by Mehling as “a little bit sad, a little bit happy.” It started out hauntingly soft, with restrained solos from Price, who channeled Grapelli: he played around the melody, embellishing it with beautiful decorations.
For one of the few vocal performances of the evening, rhythm guitarist Fontaine stepped to the mic to sing “Me, Myself and I” in a great voice with a beautiful controlled vibrato a little like the young Ella Fitzgerald’s. The band left a lot of room for solos, including a dynamic bass solo.
They played modern music in the style of the Hot Club of France (What would Django do?). Paolo Conte’s “Alle Prese con Una Verde Milonga” was a dreamy meditation with lots of space. Mehling’s Djangoesque solo was slow and spare, while not forsaking his trademark flourishes. Price drew long melodic lines and harmonics from his violin.
During the evening proper, everyone stayed at their stations, except when Fontaine took to the mic for her vocal. But for the two encore numbers, everyone got a chance to shine. Baker stepped from behind his bass (which Mehling took over) with a trumpet and vocal on a Dixieland rendition of W.C. Handy’s “Hesitating Blues.” Rhythm guitarist Magidson then took Mehling’s chair and led the band in “Avalon,” which Fontaine sang, while Baker moved to a rhythm guitar.
The musicians made up for their previous static positions with this number. Magidson took a guitar solo, Baker took another on trumpet, and Mehling shone on the bass. Magidson strummed his guitar like a four-string banjo and Fontaine led the band home.
“We’d probably be playing tonight if we weren’t here, but it’s fun to play for an audience, particularly one that likes us,” Mehling said. “Duke Ellington said it best: We love you madly.”