Gypsy jazz quintet Hot Club of Los Angeles reawaken the music of 1930s Paris on Monday nights in Culver City
By Bliss Bowen
Traditionally, Monday nights are dead zones for theatres, restaurants and bars. So entering the Cinema Bar, where Hot Club of Los Angeles’ Monday night residency is swinging through its eighth year, is like slipping into a friendlier alternate universe of smiling dancers, rapt listeners, and music from another time.
There’s hope in the liberating rhythmic bounce generated by drummer Jim Doyle and bassist Paul Eckman, and the syncopated solos spun by guitarists Jake Bluenote and Josh Workman and accordionist/keyboardist Carl Byron through band staples such as “Bossa Dorado” and “Swing Gitan.” John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Django” segues into the Duke Ellington showpiece “Caravan.” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High,” popularized by Charlie Parker, gets the Hot Club of Los Angeles treatment, as does John Williams’ “Star Wars” composition “Cantina Band.”
“It’s happy music — it makes people happy,” says Doyle. “That crosses over any sort of boundaries.”
That “happy music” dances under the broad tent of gypsy jazz, a genre widely identified with Belgian-born guitarist Django Reinhardt and the Quintette du Hot Club de France he formed in Paris in 1934 with violinist Stéphane Grappelli. But as Byron and Doyle take care to emphasize, Reinhardt himself was no purist, and this is not your grandfather’s gypsy jazz. It is another form of the roots music they have been playing throughout their careers.
Roots, Shoots, and …
“Roots music encompasses a lot of what we consider gypsy jazz,” Byron notes. “Willie Nelson from way back has been singing his own version of ‘Nuages’; he’s a huge Django Reinhardt fan. Western swing and roots music and gypsy music and even rockabilly all intersect in various ways.”
Asked why they started a gypsy jazz band in 21st-century L.A., Doyle credits a “deep love for jazz, and the opportunity to play it with good players in the roots music scene and expand our vocabulary” while investigating other types of roots music.
“The deeper you go into music you always wind up in jazz, and the deeper you go into jazz, you wind up in classical music. [Laughs] We’ll be doing baroque on Tuesday nights at the Cinema Bar.”
“People seem to forget that so much of what we think of as rock and roots music really came out of the same place: New Orleans,” Byron reminds. “It came out of that mix of indigenous music, African-American music, Western European and Eastern European music all mixed together. It’s all from the same tree, just different branches.”
“As a musician, a good song is a good song. And a good song, it doesn’t matter the genre, is a pleasure to play,” Doyle says. “If the song is good, it translates to your soul.”
“The thread that runs through all of this music is it all has soul,” Byron adds. “It all comes from a real place.”
That a crew of overscheduled sidemen got a band started at all is an underappreciated achievement. The flame was lit by a Facebook post from former Angeleno Jesse Harris: Who wants to jam on gypsy jazz in my living room? His barnburning guitar solos were a main attraction with his country band Rancho Deluxe, and a creatively curious bunch of bluegrass, blues, country, jazz and rockabilly musician pals showed up, including Byron and Doyle. Harris soon relocated to Austin, but the fledgling band hung together through initial shows at the Redwood Bar in Downtown L.A. and, in December 2011, launched the Cinema Bar residency. Their 2013 debut album “Django’s Tiger” featured Byron, Doyle, and early bandmates Peter Kavanaugh, Bob Ricketts, Jeff Ross, Frank San Filippo and violinist Cliff Wagner. On Friday, they release their second album, “Cinema Swing,” which reflects the evolution of the ensemble’s lineup (with Ross contributing to several tracks) as well as its musical depth and versatility.
“To us, this music seems current,” Byron says, commenting on the joys and challenges of playing this music. “It seems contemporary, whether we’re talking about originals or the Django and gypsy jazz repertoire that is our mainstay.”
… Different Time Zones
All of HCLA’s members are skilled jugglers, balancing myriad gigs and sessions in various genres. That feeds the band’s zesty arrangements and performance energy.
It also makes for tricky scheduling. Setting up an interview with Byron and Jim Doyle required navigating a jigsaw of deadlines, travel itineraries and time zones, to secure a window of availability between Doyle’s return from East Coast dates with a Carole King tribute and Byron’s departure for the Caribbean to back Rita Coolidge on the Rock & Romance Cruise. It isn’t unusual for HCLA players to recruit substitutes for gigs.
That directly impacts one of the joyful aspects of HCLA shows: surprise. Guitarist John McDuffie and saxophonist/bassist Jeff Turmes have often subbed for band members on tour, refreshing performance dynamics. Noted drummer Don Heffington played guitar with the band one night. Rootsy rock guitarist Anne McCue performed her jazzy “Little White Cat” while visiting L.A. The Songbirds (aka singers Gaby Moreno, Erica Canales and Danni DeAndrea) serenaded the audience with “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” A partial list of other jazz and non-jazz luminaries who’ve graced HCLA’s bandstand includes guitarists Gage Hulsey, Jeff Radaitch and Antoine Salem, harmonica players Bill Barrett and David Naiditch, clarinetists Alex Budman and Kale Stiles, and violinists Fabrice Martinez, Nora Germain, Pablo Hopenhayn, and Leah Zeger.
Heavyweight musicians from across the musical spectrum also dot HCLA’s audience — famous names such as Duane Betts and U2 guitarist the Edge, and veteran LA players who respect the band’s musicianship. It’s a sign of this music community’s diversity and camaraderie, as well as the respect HCLA has earned. As Byron points out, other players recognize that they’re not just “Django wannabes.”
“We’ve become not only a spot for listeners, but a place for players too. It’s flattering to know that we’ve created something like that,” Doyle observes. “I don’t take it for granted.”
The JB Factor
And then there’s Jackson Browne. The legendary singer-songwriter appeared one Monday at the Cinema Bar after hearing about the crazy combo performing the kind of music he grew up hearing on his father’s stereo. The band realized who he was when he approached the stage.
“‘Hey, man, can you guys do ‘Nuages’?” Byron recalls in a flawless replication of Browne’s voice. “Fortunately we knew it and I knew the French lyric.” That seeded a mutual admiration society that led to Browne eventually sitting in. In a meaningful vote of confidence, Browne later recruited HCLA as the house band for Artists for Peace and Justice “Songs from the Cinema” benefit concerts in 2017 and 2018, where they backed starry lineups of performers doing film-connected songs: Paul Beaubrun, Erica Canales, Jeff Bridges, T-Bone Burnett, Bill Frisell, Petra Haden, Jonathan Wilson, Rita Wilson, and Rufus Wainwright, among others.
“That really stretched us,” Byron says gratefully. “Jackson would come in and say, ‘Hey, I want you guys to do this thing from Fellini’s “8½,” this great Nina Rota number,’ and we were kind of scratching our heads, going, ‘OK … how do we pull this off?’ So we did. He’s not just a great singer and songwriter on his own; he’s also a great producer and he knows how to inspire people to do stuff.”
“There were two different periods of the Hot Club — pre-Jackson and post-Jackson,” Doyle says. “It was immensely flattering that he was into what we were doing. The level jumped, because when you’re around that creative force you can’t help but try to rise to that. He really challenged us and, I believe, made us better. He saw something in us that maybe we didn’t see in ourselves … it really solidified us as a team.”
That experience influenced HCLA’s new album, “Cinema Swing,” produced by Doyle, which they’re celebrating with a nearly sold-out concert at the Ruskin Theatre on Thursday (March 5) and releasing into the world Friday (March 6). Byron’s zippy title tune is a nod to the cinematic music they performed with Browne as well as the band’s ongoing Cinema Bar residency. The track list includes Reinhardt’s “Nuages” and “Douce Ambiance,” as well as a caffeinated take on the Turner Layton-Henry Creamer standard “After You’ve Gone” and band originals composed by Byron and Eckman.
Thanks to word of mouth, celebrity fans and social media, Monday nights at the Cinema Bar are no longer the domain of sleepy barflies. A specific audience has developed a give-and-take relationship with the band.
“In the past four months I see the audience becoming, for lack of a better term, hipster,” Doyle says. “People in their thirties or later twenties are coming out, and also people whose demographic this music appeals to. It’s sort of becoming like, ‘Hey, have you been to the Monday night Cinema thing’?”
Hot Club of Los Angeles celebrates the release of “Cinema Swing” with a release concert at 8 p.m. Thursday (March 5) at Ruskin Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. Tickets are $15. Call (310) 397-3244 or visit hotclubofla.com.
The band continues its Monday-night residency at the Cinema Bar (3967 Culver City) at 9 p.m. on March 9. No cover. Call (310) 390-1328 or visit thecinemabar.com for venue information.