Music News & Reviews

Hot Club of Cowtown keeps its music immediate

Hot Club of Cowtown's Elana James, fiddle; Whit Smith, center, guitar; and Jake Erwin, bass
Hot Club of Cowtown's Elana James, fiddle; Whit Smith, center, guitar; and Jake Erwin, bass

For the past 15 years, the vintage string sounds of Hot Club of Cowtown have stuck a giddy, inviting balance between two stylistic shores.

The first takes us to Europe, where Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli transformed swing into a light, giddy dialogue between guitar and violin. The second places us deep in the heart of Lone Star country, where Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys rode swing music into the wild, wild west.

It's been an enchanting combination for fiddler Elana James, guitarist Whit Smith and bassist Jake Erwin, one that has developed a fan base that is, not surprisingly, cross-continental.

But after giving equal time over the years to their two most important influences, Hot Club members decided to devote one complete album to each style. In a bit of reverse serendipity, each record was cut on the home soil of the opposite inspiration.

The 2010 Wills tribute, What Makes Bob Holler, was recorded at a three-day session during an overseas tour stop in London. The new Rendezvous in Rhythm, rooted solely in the European jazz of Reinhardt and Grappelli, was recorded just as quickly in the music metropolis of Dripping Springs, Texas.

"My mom was so excited," said James, who will perform with Smith and Erwin on Thursday as part of a free Hot Club convocation concert at Berea College. Rendezvous in Rhythm "is her favorite because it's all about one thing. That really appeals to some people. Not everybody likes everything that we do, so this is kind of a companion to What Makes Bob Holler. There is now a dedicated album to both sections of our fan base.

"This music has been played by so many people. But the thing that sets our band apart is that we bring a very immediate interpretation to it. We're not trying to reheat something. We're sort of imagining ourselves as contemporary artists to the people that have inspired us. That's what we try to capture — and it is very difficult to capture — so that it sounds fresh and immediate.

"Most of Rendezvous in Rhythm was totally improvised, so those solos and ideas are all spontaneous. It's as if we went into the studio to have a conversation with each other through these songs. Each day the conversation is a bit different depending on what people are thinking and feeling, that kind of thing."

A prime example of that on Rendezvous is Minor Swing, one of the best known compositions to reflect the animated and lyrical swing pioneered by Reinhardt and Grappelli.

"That one is totally improvised," James said. "In Django Reinhardt's composition, the only thing that is copyrighted is that bom-bom-bom, doo-doo-doo. It's like eight bars. That's it. After that, you're on your own. A lot of people know that song, so it's nice to be able to give people something like that as a reference. And if people know the song but have never heard our band, they might go, 'Oh, Minor Swing — let's hear what they do with that."

The challenge behind What Makes Bob Holler was different. The Hot Club, like Wills, was accustomed to playing Western swing in front of a live audience and feeding off the energy. But the isolated studio environment meant the band had to rely on its own performance gusto to carry the music.

"We really are the kind of band that is very affected by, and responds to, our audience," James said. "So the hardest thing about the record was letting some of these songs catch fire on their own. So we really did it in this kind of old-school style, like old-timers just stopping into a studio in Paris or Oklahoma and seeing what you could come up with during three days of sessions. That's what the album is."

If audience feedback was what Hot Club was yearning for, it got it in super-size fashion when the trio was invited to open several London concerts in 2011 by the veteran British pop troupe Roxy Music.

"Several years ago, Bryan Ferry approached us to rework some of his material into a hot jazz/Western swing format," James said of the Roxy frontman. "So we cut two or three of his songs and sent them to him. He was like, 'Would you just do a few more?' So we wound up doing like six of his songs. But it never really came to anything. I almost think he wanted to return the favor by having us open those shows.

"It was like being a stand-up comic. When you're on tour opening for a giant act like that in huge arenas in England, you get to play about 23 minutes. So you try to sculpt your set so that it will have the most wallop for that crowd. Your time is so limited that the goal is to dazzle without overselling yourself. You want to get in there, get out and leave them with a positive, memorable performance. That's what we always shoot for."


Hot Club of Cowtown

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 17

Where: Berea College's Phelps-Stokes Chapel, Berea

Admission: Free

Learn more: (859) 985-3359,