Song of the Week: Billets Doux, Django Reinhardt et Le Quintette du Hot Club de France

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Scroll down to listen to “Billets Doux” by Django Reinhardt et le Quintette du Hot Club de France (opens in Spotify)

I’m almost certain there are no recordings of Django Reinhardt singing, but when he emerged on the jazz scene in the 1930s, he indisputably represented a new voice.

To understand how important he was, try to imagine what jazz looked like in the 1930s. Not only was it insanely popular dance music with a rebellious edge, like rock & roll or hip-hop later in the century, but it was almost exclusively played by Americans (generally African-Americans) wielding trumpets, trombones, and maybe pianos.

Reinhardt and his group, the Hot Club Quintette of France, turned all of this on its head. They didn’t have any horns, or even a piano. Instead, they had three guitars, an upright bass, and Stéphane Grapelli’s violin. They played relentlessly fast, catchy music with attitude and swagger—not meekly imitating American sounds, but boldly pioneering new ones. Their style of music—called “hot swing” or “gypsy jazz”—was the punk rock of the jazz world at the time, thanks to its relentless tempos, slightly contrarian attitude, and guitar-centric approach.

“Billets Doux” (“Love Letters,” in French), is a quintessential example of the group’s style. The first half of the song is a slow, danceable swing, with Reinhardt’s tasteful, sympathetic playing laid over top. But by 1:14, the tempo has cranked way up, and the group plays with an unbridled joy that I think is still palpable more than 50 years later. The speed of Reinhardt’s phrase at 1:25 is fast enough to make Van Halen think twice, and by the time Grapelli takes his solo, the group is swinging so hard that they being to rush the tempo a bit—a classic symptom of excited, happy musicians. If you’re having a hard time understanding what “swing” is, listen to the backgrounds around the 2:00 mark: the rhythm has an unbalanced momentum to it, pushing relentlessly but happily forward. That was Django Reinhardt in a nutshell.

Album of the Week: On the Track, Leon Redbone

Let me be clear about something: I am a Yankee. I have not spent very much time south of the Mason-Dixon line, and certainly not in summer. I therefore have no great experience with the kind of syrupy, incapacitating heat that forces you to stay on your front porch, immobile and slowly sweating as the sun rises and falls.

However, if I was in that position, this is the album I would play.

If the name Leon Redbone isn’t familiar, you will recognize him either from his appearances very early on as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, or from his duet with Zooey Deschanel on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from the movie Elf. The fact that the same man appears in two radically different generational touchstones—you just dated yourself, Dear Reader—is a testament to his quirky but enduring appeal.

In this, our post-Mumfordian era, a man who consciously dresses like he’s from the 1920s and reinterprets the Great American songbook isn’t that strange, but when On the Track came out in 1975, I imagine it was a bit shocking. The entire album featured music written 40 years ago—music that the average Saturday Night Live viewer’s parents listened to when they were kids. And though Redbone was hardly very old himself in ‘75, his renditions of these songs evoke genuine comfort with his material.

Redbone’s voice is undoubtedly the first thing you notice. He sings the way a gentle grandfather might, if this grandfather marinated his vocal chords in tobacco and had a potato permanently down his throat. For all its bizarre timbre it is a supremely likable voice, warm and full of character. Nowhere is this clearer then when he does a sort of scat singing midway between trumpet and human voice on songs like “Marie.” Redbone dubs this “instrument” the throat tromnet, and it’s the kind of affectation that a lesser talent, or a more self-conscious one, wouldn’t be able to carry off.

His voice is so mesmerizing that it quickly overshadows his guitar playing, but it too is a marvel of idiosyncrasy. He frames chords rather than playing their full voicings, and his fingerpicked approach coupled with the small-bodied guitar he favors provide a nice mid-heavy counterpoint to his voice. The double-time section in “Some of These Days” has much in common with ragtime piano—no accident I’m sure—and showcases Redbone’s deft fingering.

The arrangements are purposely low-tech and a little scattershot, again presaging the low-fi approach favored by another generation of revivalists (looking at you, Jack White). They feel intimate and warm, but it’s not an album that embraces so much as it refreshes you. If you’re sitting on that sticky, humid front porch, On the Track is a tall drink full of ice.

And that is the true beauty of Redbone’s approach. By scaling everything down and treating the material in his own humble way, Redbone removes these songs from the flash and dazzle of the stage or the concert hall, and puts them back where they belong: in people’s homes.

Song of the Week: Strasbourg/Saint Denis, Roy Hargrove Quintet

Click Here to listen to “Strasbourg/Saint Denis,” by the Roy Hargrove Quintet

To any serious jazz fans, Roy Hargrove is old news. I wish I could say I’d been following him since he won his first Grammy in 1997, but that would be a lie—I couldn’t even spell “Grammy” at that point. He won another Grammy in 2002, but I was in a deep Smash Mouth phase at that age. Ahh, youth.

Thankfully, I discovered him in the past few years thanks to a dear friend in France, so all is not lost.

“Strasbourg/Saint-Denis,” named after a Paris métro stop that you shouldn’t visit after midnight if you don’t have to, puts Hargrove’s funky sensibility out front, with a slick, accessible piece of music.

The bass intro grooves from the beginning, and the instrument’s acoustic quality is captured beautifully, with plenty of space. The tricky drum entrance paves the way for the sax and trumpet to enter for the laid-back head, played in unison. Again, I think this recording really allows a novice listener to get a tonal understanding of the main instruments in jazz. When they switch to the upper register, the trumpet’s warm blat meshes nicely with the sax’s thinner, more melodic tone. There’s also some tricky muting going on in the piano solo, a neat tricky that amplifies the staccato nature of a lot of Gerald Clayton’s phrasing.

And while none of the individual performances are particularly surprising, the song has great feel and groove and hangs together as a comprehensive whole. It’s a textbook piece of quintet playing from fine musicians that is loaded with aural appeal—they didn’t call the album Earfood for nothin’—and worth a listen if you’re at all jazz-curious.

Song of the Week: The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, The Marsalis Family

Click Here to listen to “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” by the Marsalis Family

This post originally appeared on Turntablr, Vintage Voltage’s spirit animal

I like jazz. The typical reader of this blog may not, so I promise to not go all out on jazz terminology. Like dubstep or indie folk, jazz is a genre that takes a while to wrap your head around and appreciate. So you have a free pass if you don’t dig this right away, but give it a few listens before you dismiss it entirely.

The name Marsalis is big in jazz circles—trumpeter Wynton is already a living legend, saxophonist Branford regularly packs concert halls, and their father Ellis taught for many years at the University of New Orleans. In 2001 the entire Marsalis family (including trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason) got together in New Orleans to lay down this album. I actually saw them on their subsequent tour, but since I was nine, I didn’t really appreciate it.

This track features Ellis on piano and Jason on drums, backed by Roland Guerin on the bass. Ellis takes a corny showtune (originally from Oklahoma!) and imbues it with a deeply funky energy.

People looking to understand what makes a song “jazz” should play the original version of “Surrey” first, and then play this version. The difference is in the phrasing: Ellis deletes notes he doesn’t like, repeats ones he does, and gets lazy with it when he wants. It’s all about feel.

Guerin sets the tone with his bass entrance at 00:46—if you don’t have speakers with good clear bass, find a pair that do. Ellis opens the track up at 00:59 with an incredibly lush two-handed chord. He states the main theme at 01:22, and he swings it hard.

A word, if I may, on Jason’s drum solo at 04:09. It’s not Neil Peart, that’s for sure—for starters, Jason probably has four or five drums compared to Neil’s 20+. It’s not a technically mind blowing solo, but it’s not supposed to be. Jazz drummers prize locking into a “groove” above everything else: steady, pulsing tempo. That’s exactly what Jason does here: he locks in, and then manipulates the groove all over the place. It’s a different type of technical mastery.

So there you have it. That’s jazz. There’s a lot of subtlety here, and I still pick up on new stuff every time. My current favorite is Ellis’ outro at 07:42—the way he turns the melody into some sort of jazzy doorbell. They’re having fun, and that’s evident no matter how much you know about jazz.

Album of the Week: Getz/Gilberto

One of the paradoxes of jazz is that really good jazz doesn’t sound that complex. It sounds effortless, tossed-off, minimizing the intense concentration and skill required to play it. Getz/Gilberto is a great example: this seminal 1964 album sounds like they recorded it in one breezy afternoon session. What you don’t get is how complex the darn thing is—like an iceberg, the musicians display only a fraction of their talent and knowledge, and this minimalism might be what gives the album its accessibility.

It would be difficult to find a cadre of musicians better suited for playing bossa nova than the ones who appear here. In fact, Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim can honestly be said to have helped invent the genre, and this album is the reason why their names are known worldwide as well as in their native Brazil. Stan Getz is the only non-Brazilian on the album, but his cool sensibility and expressive lyricism on songs like “O Grande Amor,” dovetail with the other players’ vibe.

Joao Gilberto’s rhythmically complex guitar playing and vocals anchor the record. His voice is an acquired taste, reedy and subtle, and there’s a greath depth and mystery to his delivery. He sings with conviction and wisdom, even if I can’t understand what he’s saying.

His wife, Astrud, shares some of these same qualities. Her immortal vocals on “Corcovado” and “The Girl From Ipanema” share that depth and mystery, but hook the listener instantly. Tonally speaking, they’re almost on the other end of the vocal spectrum from Joao’s, providing a refreshing departure.

Her alto interestingly echoes Stan Getz’s tenor sax. Getz is undoubtedly the third voice in this quintet, and probably the most stunning. His tone is silk smooth and incredibly full–every note is right, and his lyrical sensibility is always on display. Even when he cuts loose on a solo, as he does in “So Danco Samba,” you can still sing along (something that can’t be said for some of Coltrane’s solos). He’s also mic’ed exquisitely, and you can sometimes hear a breath or his fingers on the keys. Getz was nicknamed “the Sound” for a reason: this is what jazz saxophone should sound like.

But my favorite player on the record—I’m not exaggerating—is drummer Milton Banana. His fantastic (stage) name aside, he propels the entire record on little more than a hi-hat and rimshots. A light touch and rhythmic excitement don’t normally go together, but here, Banana sinks his teeth in. It’s an incredible exercise in minimalism, all the more so because the group swings so hard.  Even more exciting than Getz’s solo on “So Danco Samba” may be when Banana opens up behind him, which could be the only time he hits the heads of his drums on the record.

If you know jazz, it shouldn’t surprise you that I have only great things to say about this record. If you’re new to the genre, you need to get your hands on a copy of this as soon as possible. It’s accessible, simple, and beautiful—a knockout album.

Album of the Week: Full House, Wes Montgomery

He’s not a household name the way Miles Davis or John Coltrane is, but guitarist Wes Montgomery deserves his place in the jazz pantheon. He’s one of the most important jazz guitarists in history, and this is my favorite album of his, Full House.

It’s a weird album for a couple reasons. First off, Wes Montgomery is probably best known for his later career as a soloist on cross-over tracks where he took popular melodies and played them in a jazz idiom with an orchestra backing him—a bit Muzak-y, honestly. Listening to this album, though, you could be excused for thinking it was an entirely different guitarist. Here he plays straight hard bop, with one or two ballads thrown into the mix. And he plays it well.

The second reason why it’s weird is because it’s a live album. I actually like live jazz albums, because with the improvisational nature of the music, every recording is to a certain extent “live.” On a true live album, jazz musicians in particular seem to always play their best. Maybe it’s because there’s a real crowd, or maybe it’s because the players have already played the material in concert.

You can hear by the way the band swings that everyone is supremely comfortable on this disc, which is hardly surprising given that three-fifths of the band is made up of the Wynton Kelly Trio (Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums), all jazz superstars in their own right who had plenty of practice playing together already. Jazz is difficult music to play when you’re agitated or nervous, so the nine-minute length of “Full House” helps the group settle down and lock in—not that they need much time. Wes breaks out his signature octaves on guitar at about 3:04, and Johnny Griffin’s tenor solo at 3:57 allows the horn player to show off his technical chops and loosen up.

“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” starts out with a mysterious Spanish intro before moving into a really beautiful rendering of the show tune from “My Fair Lady.”  Wes’s chord melodies are warm and lush, and Cobb does a supremely understated job with the brushes. It’s sort of a collective intake of breath for the group before they drive the tempo back up for the next few tunes.

“Blue ‘n’ Boggie” is a nice track that features a pretty standard Wes solo (again, lots of octaves), but a really nice showing from Kelly on the piano at 2:54. Cobb swings like a madman on this one—listen to his playing behind the soloists, particularly around 1:30 and 3:30. He’s prodding the soloist, feeding them ideas and counterpoints to play off of.

“Cariba” is probably my favorite of the bunch, with a rock-solid Latin groove and a tricky harmonized lead from Wes and Griffin. Chambers gets the first solo, which is deeply, deeply funky (listen to him scat quietly around 1:04 if you’re listening on good speakers). The end of the solo is the best part—Cobb’s drum entrance at 1:24 is so slick. Midway through his solo around 4:57, Griffin begins honking into his horn, playing these weird rubbery licks with big blatty punctuation—kind of the same way James Brown would end a lyric with an “uungh!” I’ve listened to Wes’s solo so many times  that I can probably sing most of it. Everything about it is simultaneously impressive and tasteful— from his innovative blues lines to his fantastic sliding licks.

I’ve already written 566 words on this, and I should stop, but how can I not mention the great fat guitar tone on “Come Rain OR Come Shine” with Kelly’s great piano counterpoint? What about the blazing unison head of “S.O.S”? If anyone got this far in the album and doubted the musician’s technical proficiency, the first 40 seconds of this song should convince you.

There’s really so much to dig into here, and it bears repeated listening—no doubt serious jazz fans will be able to glean even more out of it than I have. Turn to this album particularly if you’re looking for a taste of Wes Montgomery at his most vital, if you still don’t think the guitar is a “real” jazz instrument, or if you just want nearly an hour of world-class music.