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There is no lack of talent or passion on Hot Club of 52nd Street ; for these two reasons alone it would be a noteworthy album. But this is a rare kind of swinging, foot-stomping, finger-tapping live session, as expressive and fiery as it is expertly controlled. Conceived and carried out in the spirit of guitar great Django Reinhardt (incidentally, Hot Club guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and Howard Alden trained the actors and laid down the soundtrack for Woody Allen’s Django film homage Sweet and Lowdown ), Hot Club of 52nd Street certainly does credit to the wayward genius gypsy’s illustrious name.
The album comprises nine standards, all performed with an ear for pure melody. Things begin playfully enough with “Rosetta,” as the rhythm guitarist (Alden? Pizzarelli? Does it even matter with a quartet as cohesive as this?) twice shimmies his way down a partial scale, allowing Johnny Frigo to enter with his violin and spin, dance, pirouette, somersault. As he bows out, the other guitarist comes in. He seems to dismantle and reassemble his acoustic guitar, strumming all the while. Throughout the four-minute tune, Michael Moore plucks his bass notes, each as clear and distinct as though he were slyly mirroring the guitar picking.
The rendition of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” which follows is one of the best I have ever heard—jaunty, confident, carefree, brimming with optimism and goodwill. “Tangerine” simply rockets forward. (Despite its speed, it isn’t the 3:39 the liner notes claim. It’s actually 5:39.) Here rhythm guitar and bass unite to propel the song via a locomotion that suggests an all-out sprint rather than a mere pitter-pat. They use this same technique to astounding, vibrant effect later on “Strike up the Band.”
Reinhardt’s own ballad “Nuages” floats and drifts as lazily, as it ought to. Frigo’s double solo, with all the weeping and laughing of his instrument, is the most salient among them. “I Got Rhythm,” the closing track, takes the Gershwins' tune to a country hoedown: impressive finger picking by at least one of the guitarists matched with Frigo’s fiddle-like exuberance.
For a Chesky release, the quality of the recording is open to debate. Pristine sound is not the issue here, it’s the applause that enthusiastically and invariably follows each solo, always far louder than the quartet itself. This is fine for those who listen to a live recording and enjoy feeling a part of the audience. If you prefer a more privileged vantage—somewhere closer to the musicians than the crowd in New York City’s A.C. Pianocraft Recital Hall— Hot Club of 52nd Street will be something of a disappointment. Playing the disc at the volume it deserves means reaching for the volume knob three or four times per song to compensate for the whistles, shouts and clapping.