The Hot Club of Palo Alto keeps the gypsy-jazz tradition alive and swinging
by Rebecca Wallace, Palo Alto Weekly
It's been raining for hours, but there's a Sunday-afternoon warmth inside Menlo Park's Café Zoe that has nothing to do with the soup of the day.
Rich gypsy jazz swings through the small room and out the front door: bittersweet violin solo atop vigorous rhythm guitar and bass, layered with accordion, lead guitar, saxophone and shaker. People at the tables — some neighbors and some fans of the band, The Hot Club of Palo Alto — nod in time over their lattes. When the players take a break, a man shouts from outside, "You guys are good!"
Gypsy jazz, also known as jazz manouche, blends the sounds of tango, swing and even Dixieland jazz into its often minor-key mix. It began really making its voice heard in 1930s Paris. Much of the music's enduring popularity today is thanks to a Belgian-born gypsy guitarist, the iconic Django Reinhardt (1910-1953), and his Quintet of the Hot Club of France.
This year, many concerts have marked what would have been Reinhardt's 100th birthday, including a tribute performance at the Stanford Jazz Festival this summer. The Hot Club of Palo Alto honors the master and his swinging style year-round, performing at Café Zoe, Red Rock Coffee in Mountain View, and other venues.
Longtime Menlo Park guitarist and teacher Ken Brown is the band's musical director, doing all the arrangements and planning sets. He's got a background in classical music, a guitar pin on his lapel, and a love for introducing new tunes to the band and its audiences.
One of the features of gypsy jazz is that it lacks a drummer. Doesn't need one. The rhythm guitar provides the distinctive percussive sound known as "la pompe," which can skip along at quite a clip. In The Hot Club of Palo Alto, Atherton resident Paul Getty plays rhythm guitar with Menlo Park's John Higham also providing a rhythmic anchor on bass. Both also jump in with solos from time to time.
Alen Cieli of Palo Alto alternates between bowing and strumming his violin, with Don Dias providing that distinctive Continental sound on the accordion. Chazz Alley, who grew up in Palo Alto, plays saxophone and shaker. When a song needs words, he's the vocalist.
"Chazz has a beautiful voice," Cafe Zoe owner Kathleen Daly says. She describes the band's music as "really happy, feel-good stuff," and adds, "We fight over who's going to work Sunday afternoons because we all enjoy them so much."
All the band's instruments add up to a textured sound that appeals to many players because of the chances for lengthy improvisation and technically difficult solos.
"I'm a rock and roll guitarist," says Mr. Getty, who toured with Stevie Wonder in the early 1970s. "Django's style is hard to play. We like the challenge."
Mr. Getty and Mr. Brown have known each other for 15 years. In fact, Mr. Brown used to give Mr. Getty lessons. The other musicians connected more recently, bringing backgrounds in traditional jazz, rock and classical. "Ken kind of got us all playing this kind of music," Mr. Getty says.
"It's very accessible," Mr. Brown says of gypsy jazz. "It's got a great feel and a great tradition."
On this Sunday afternoon, the band sounds just fine to the crowd at Cafe Zoe. The musicians play the warm "Blue Bossa," the dreamy "Nuages" and other tunes, communicating with each other through eye contact and nods, taking turns on solos. A boy in a baseball cap too big for him watches so intently that he forgets to eat his chocolate-chip cookie.
Mr. Getty seems to enjoy his emcee role as he calls out each song title. Before the band plays "Midnight in Moscow," Mr. Getty announces: "We're going to take you back east of the Volga for the next tune. ... It's older than dirt. Probably a greatest hit in 1870."
During "The Sheik of Araby," Mr. Alley commands the microphone like an old-timer. "At night when you're asleep, into your tent I'll creep," he croons, garnering appreciative laughs from the audience.
After the show, the musicians chat with patrons as the café quiets down and the cozy room begins to empty out. Instruments get packed up, and the players start talking about their next gig.
They'll play over at Red Rock, then back at Cafe Zoe, then back at Red Rock. Other gigs might pop up. Mr. Brown has music lessons to teach. Some of the guys have day jobs. It's a traveling band for travelers' music.