Paul Mehling admits his band's "Cinema Vivant" performance is a straight-up Trojan horse. Under the premise of silent films accompanied by live gypsy jazz, the Hot Club of San Francisco gets into theaters who might never otherwise hire a gypsy jazz band. The accompaniment does happen, he promises, but before the five-piece begins playing along with the vintage films, they introduce the audience to their swinging style, and one realizes this evening is all about the genre.
"We get to do this tradition of improvising and responding to the film on screen with some pre-prepared ideas, but it never turns out the same. So it's a jazz experience in that there's improvisation, but it's also prepared to avoid disappointment," says Mehling, the group's band leader and guitar player. "You take Eastern European gypsy music, and you take classical music, and you take dance music [from] the turn of the century -- tangos, waltzes, polkas, pasodobles, things like that -- and then the magic ingredient, the fourth ingredient is American jazz. So classical, gypsy, dance and jazz music, all put into a pot, and you stir it up and try to play it with this fantastic gypsy technique, and that's gypsy jazz."
The Hot Club of San Francisco
WHEN — 7 p.m. Jan. 10; swing dancing at 7 p.m. Jan. 11
WHERE — Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville
COST — Each event is $10
INFO — 443-5600, waltonartscenter.org, hotclubsf.com
“We love playing for dancing because jazz started as party music. A lot of people don’t know this — they think you sit in a chair and you listen and you clap and you listen and you clap. But really, it started as party music. We feel like it’s more symbiotic between us and the audience. Jazz should always be interactive with the audience, and it’s hard with a film going because people are really focused on the visuals. [So] we love playing for dancing.” — Band leader and guitar player Paul Mehling
Though they've been performing this music for 30 years, none of the Hot Club of San Francisco are gypsies themselves. They're Americans who learned from gypsies who copied Americans, Mehling explains. And their not-quite-gypsy, not-quite-jazz style feels like something completely new.
"Gypsies are nomads. The simple answer is they're people that take their homes with them wherever they go. I always sort of poll the audience so that we can get to know them while they're getting to know us. And we ask if people have ever heard of the Hot Club of France or Django Reinhardt," Mehling shares. "There's a few times that the road of jazz took a turn because of one person. Django Reinhardt didn't invent gypsy jazz; he was a gypsy who played jazz. So he's credited with creating the genre.
"He was listening to all the American jazz artists and sort of synthesized that through his gypsy heritage," Mehling continues. "And gypsies have a unique approach to music; they're like human tape recorders. They hear something once, and they can play it. That's just the way it is. [And] if you've ever heard classical gypsy music, like 'Hungarian Rhapsody,' everybody has an idea of that in their heads. Well, those kinds of classical pieces were literally stolen from gypsies that carried them for hundreds of years before that, sort of improvising them."
And actual gypsies love what the Hot Club of San Francisco is doing, Mehling reveals. With many friends in the gypsy musician community, Mehling's respect for and love of the genre and its history is evident. He proudly points to the more inclusive revisions taking place as jazz history books illuminate the work of Reinhardt and include his contributions to the genre, and a general expanded awareness of the music and its history. Having come onto the "scene" early and working for three decades to bring more awareness to the fun and heart and joy of the music, Mehling unpretentiously admits the band also takes a tiny bit of credit for helping to promote the resurgence of interest in the movement of gypsy jazz.
"But the music speaks for itself; you just have to hear it."
NAN What's Up on 01/06/2019
Print Headline: The Gypsy Genre