Pearl Django: A Decade of 'Hot Club' Jazz

Jason West By

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I think each of us is equally aware that we are playing a contemporary version of a music that now is almost 70 years old. We bring to the genre all of our musical experiences which include the influence of pop music as well as jazz. —Neil Andersson
It’s a crisp, autumn evening on the streets of Fremont, but inside Bouchee restaurant it’s toasty warm with standing room only to hear Pearl Django perform barn-burning gypsy jazz tunes, medium-swing melodies and lush string ballads—all of which recall the era of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, when post-war Europe was rapidly adopting jazz into it’s musical vocabulary.

Pearl Django features guitarists Neil Andersson, Dudley Hill and Greg Ruby, double-bassist Rick Leppanen, and Michael Gray on violin. Their quintet is one that Northwest audiences have come to appreciate for close to a decade.

In addition to a strong local following, the band has steadily earned international recognition, performing in 2001 at the first Django Reinhardt festival in Iceland along with the Robin Nolan Trio from Amsterdam. In 2002, Pearl Django played the Festival Django Reinhardt in Samois sur Seine, France, and “les rendez-vous de l’erdre” in Nantes.

Released late last year, Swing 48 (Modern Hot Records) is Pearl Django’s latest offering. A sure-fire crowd pleaser, the recording reveals this “hot jazz” quintet in excellent form, with special guests David Lange on accordion and Mark Ivester on drums. A majority of the fourteen tracks are originals with each member contributing at least one composition.

Incredibly, after ten years in existence, Pearl Django has turned into a full-time gig, according to Neil and Rick...

All About Jazz: Explain the origins of Django Reinhardt-style jazz, or gypsy jazz?

Neil Andersson: Gypsy jazz is a style of music that originated with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in the French group, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France during the 1930s and 1940s. Django and several of the rhythm guitarists, including his brother Joseph, were Manouche gypsies. In Europe the style is often referred to as Jazz Manouche, Jazz Gitan, or sometimes Hot Club music. Django’s guitar style included elements of American swing, gypsy melodies, and classical music. In the gypsy communities Django’s style of playing was emulated from the outset and that tradition has continued to the present day. He and Stephane Grappelli were very famous in Europe and many people, both gypsy and non-gypsy were influenced by their musical styles.

AAJ: How influential were American elements like ragtime or Dixieland on the gypsy jazz genre?

NA: From the little literature available, Django and his gypsy contemporaries probably made the jump directly from Parisian dance hall music to swing. There were people playing ragtime and Dixieland in Europe at the time, but it’s difficult to pinpoint a direct influence. Most likely, those genres were only influential in that they were part of the evolution that led to swing.

AAJ: Pearl Django has performed at numerous Reinhardt festivals in France and in America. How is your music received by French versus American audiences?

NA: Generally, American audiences are very enthusiastic. Most Americans, except those few who grew up during the swing era and knew of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, are not familiar with the sound of gypsy jazz. To many audiences, even jazz audiences, the music is fresh, since it’s all strings. To those who are not jazz listeners, the melodies of standards and the rhythms of swing music seem refreshing after decades of electric, often heavily-produced pop music. The French audiences are equally enthusiastic, maybe even a bit more so for two reasons: First, we play a kind of music that is familiar to them and speaks to their musical heritage; and second, we are Americans playing a European-based music with our slightly different American jazz/blues-influenced style.

AAJ: There’s a great deal of energy and life in Pearl Django’s music. There’s also a strong sense of nostalgia. Do you feel like you’re revisiting the past when the band performs?

NA: There are times when I’m sure each member has thought about the original QHCF when we’re performing, both in terms the audience and the music on stage as we are playing. However, I think each of us is equally aware that we are playing a contemporary version of a music that now is almost 70 years old. We bring to the genre all of our musical experiences which include the influence of pop music as well as jazz. I think between all the members of the band, we’ve played just about every style of music. So, when we solo there are often nods to the original Django or Stephane melodies, perhaps even a few quotes, but then similarly there are snippets of solo motifs of Charlie Parker, Freddie King, Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, etc.

AAJ: Your latest CD, 48 Swing, includes four Reinhardt compositions. However, half of the 14 tracks are originals, with each band member contributing at least one original composition. Musically, what are the results of having everyone write for the band?

Rick Leppanen: First, having everyone write for the band increases the sense of ownership and group participation. We have become more of a collective. Second, the variety is a very healthy thing, especially since we perform a great deal. Third, already our audience comes to us with a broad palette of tastes, so the variety and slight diversion from strict QHCF repertoire helps broaden our appeal. For instance, Michael has been composing tunes with a strong Eastern European feel to them and Dudley continuously comes up with catchy swing riff melodies.


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