“The interplay is as sleek as ever.” – The Times (London)
“The hot jazz is what Hot Club do best, and this is a staggering return to form for the band I once said I could listen to forever. That still stands.” – Country Music People
You’d think a band from Austin, Texas with the word “Cowtown” in its name spends its time off from touring herding cattle at a West Texas ranch or maybe in Nashville writing songs about whiskey and loose women. Not the HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN. “We recently took a band vacation to the Gypsy Festival at St. Maries de la Mer in the South of France,” says the band’s fiddler and vocalist, Elana James. Whit Smith, Hot Club’s guitar player and vocalist, is a regular at the prestigious Djangofest Northwest in Whidbey, Island, Washington, and bass player Jake Erwin has the Hungarian folk band Csokolom in regular rotation on his home stereo.
“Our band is fiddle, guitar, and bass, and they can do anything together. We’ve always played a combination of hot jazz and Western swing, but it’s been really a joy to finally distill part of our essence and serve up a record that is purely jazzy,” says James, who in fact was once a horse wrangler in Colorado, as well as a former student of classical music at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France. Says Smith, “Once Elana became aware that in jazz music and swing, you could express yourself more in improvisation, I think that attracted her to it. She still likes classical, and I do too.” Smith grew up hearing his parents play lots of folk music, especially acoustic blues, but as a teenager he naturally rebelled and turned sharply toward hard rock, which still informs his approach to hot jazz and Western swing. The impression that the band is in some way a country act, especially in the current climate of American popular music, is somewhat misleading since the Hot Club’s influences have always been as much the musette music of the smoky bistros of 1930s Paris as they are the hoedowns and Western swing of the mythic American West.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the Hot Club of Cowtown, on their seventh studio album, is finally releasing Rendezvous in Rhythm, a thrilling display of this Texas trio’s virtuosity and its elegant, more European inspirations. “We had lots of people asking us to make a record of standards,” says Smith, “So there you go, here’s a record full of swing standards. We’re not trying to compete with anyone who’s writing the songs. It’s more of a vehicle for one way we really like to play — starting with familiar ground and then improvising from there.” By way of inspiration James adds, “One of the most thrilling nights of my life was when Gheorghe Anghel (the violinist from legendary Romanian Gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks) came over to my house and he and Whit and I jammed on songs like ‘Avalon’ and ‘Exactly Like You’ in my living room with him ’til four in the morning. And then he asked if he could use my phone to call home to Romania. It was the coolest thing ever.”
We can all be grateful then, for whatever inspiration a visiting Romanian fiddler may have sparked, for Rendezvous in Rhythm is a superb collection of traditional material, the Hot Club’s most polished and sophisticated work to date. From the first hypnotic phrases of the lead track “Ochi Chornye” (a Russian folk song, “Dark Eyes”), which builds into a frenzy à la Ravel’s “Bolero,” Rendezvous in Rhythm takes us on a lively journey of raw joy and authentic energy.
Disarmingly intimate ballads (“If I Had You,” “I’m Confessin’”) give way to instrumental virtuosity in the extreme (“Dark Eyes,” “Minor Swing,” “Douce Ambiance”). Pre-WWII influences abound throughout, as with “Back in Your Own Backyard,” a classic made famous by Billie Holliday, Al Jolson’s “Avalon,” and Fred Loesser’s “Slow Boat to China.” “Crazy Rhythm,” through which James sings and swings with sassy authority first appeared in 1928 but sounds as current as any of the band’s original material. “The Continental,” a Reinhardt and Grappelli showpiece, has been intricately rearranged by Smith, whose vocal and hot twin lines warn of the dangers of dancing and the spells it can cast. Smith’s lush treatment of the Fields and McHugh masterpiece “I’m in the Mood for Love” is alone worth the price of admission.
Though many songs in this collection have been revisited in recent years by well-known artists, Rendezvous in Rhythm is the first release by a major touring act to ignite this material with the danceable, swinging vivaciousness that first put it on the map. In order to capture lightning in a bottle, says Smith, “We went back to our way of having everyone in the room together. We recorded it live, right there next to each other so we could hear each other play. I play acoustic on it — not big news, but usually in the past, I would play a mixture of electric and acoustic and sometimes overdub the electric guitar or vice versa. The majority of this album is the three of us there and playing acoustic. We tried to capture the feel of our live shows as much as possible.”
Since its beginnings in the late 1990s, Hot Club of Cowtown’s star has continued to rise as its reputation for jaw-dropping virtuosity and unforgettable live shows has become the band’s global brand. Lauded for its “down-home melodies and exuberant improvisation” (The Times, London), the Hot Club has always woven a combination of seemingly disparate styles together to its own magical effect, setting up camp “at that crossroads where country meets jazz and chases the blues away” (The Independent), and “conscious always that above all else, the music is for dancing and an old-fashioned good time” (New York Times). The band’s musical alchemy has been described as “another breathless journey in the Texas tardis” (The Times, London), while American Songwriter observed that “The excellent three players of this band could be doing anything but have chosen to honor the greats of jazz and swing with their sound.” The Belfast Telegraph calls them “a pretty much perfect country trio at the very top of their game,” while the New York Times, reviewing a live performance in New York City in 2011, describes the trio as armed with “an arsenal full of technique and joy.”
Along with the Hot Club’s dedicated cult following worldwide — they have toured for the U.S. State Department as musical ambassadors to Azerbaijan, Armenia, the Republic of Georgia and the Sultanate of Oman — certain titans of the industry have also taken notice. Bob Dylan, with whom the band toured and with whom James has toured and recorded, is a continuing inspiration. The Hot Club has opened several shows for Willie Nelson, toured with Nelson and Dylan during a summer-long stadium tour, and recently opened seven nights of Roxy Music’s sold-out “For Your Pleasure” U.K. stadium tour in early 2011. In the U.K. the Hot Club of Cowtown continues to tour extensively and has been featured at the Glastonbury Festival and has also been a returning guest on Later With Jools Holland, the Cambridge Folk Festival, and BBC Radio 2’s Radcliffe and Maconie and Bob Harris Country shows.
EARLY YEARS & DISCOGRAPHY
In 1994 in New York City, Elana James placed an ad in the music section of the Village Voice looking to join a band, and Whit Smith answered it. Since then the music these two have made has always been a secret brew of energy, joie de vivre, and a respect for tradition that is often imitated but never equaled. By 1997, after founding a much larger Western swing orchestra in NYC, Elana and Whit pared back down to their essential elements and the duo that began as “Whit & Elana” grew — with the addition of a bass player and a lot of optimism and naïveté — into Hot Club of Cowtown. The trio moved to Austin, Texas, and released its first album, Swingin’ Stampede, in 1998 after signing with American roots label HighTone Records. Tall Tales (1999) and Dev’lish Mary (2000) soon followed, but it wasn’t until 2001 that the band’s lineup solidified with the arrival of bassist Jake Erwin, who cemented Hot Club’s larger-than-life, earth-shaking rhythmic foundation. Ghost Train (2002) showcased a significant shift toward original songwriting and Continental Stomp (2003) is a live testament to the thundering authority of the band in concert and proof positive that it remains one of roots music’s most formidable touring acts. In 2008 American label Shout Factory released a 20-track Best Of retrospective, followed by another critically-acclaimed album of largely original material, Wishful Thinking (2009), and, in 2011, a collection of Western swing standards made famous by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, What Makes Bob Holler (Proper).
With the release of Rendezvous in Rhythm, Hot Club of Cowtown invites us to join in once again on a journey through its musical inspirations, where the campfire is still burning, but this time the lights of Paris twinkle in the distance, the Gypsy caravans are gathered round, and the night air is filled with magic and romance.