Jazz Police Review

Category: Press

Whether you are a dedicated swing dancer or a more passive fan of the genre known as “gyspy jazz,” chances are that you are already well acquainted with the music of Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grapelli and the Hot Club of Paris. Popular in the 1930s in Europe, the music has been undergoing a revival, attracting particular attention in the Twin Cities through the performances of groups such as the Clearwater Hot Club, Parisota Hot Club, and since Fall 2004, the Twin Cities Hot Club. This weekend (February 9-11), TCHC celebrates their first DVD at the Times Bar and Café, where their live gig was filmed last September. Grab your dancing shoes and come early—the small dance floor at the Times will be jammed!

The DVD includes over 2 ½ hours of music, interviews and fan testimonials, offering a good introduction to “gypsy jazz” and to these four amazing musicians. Each is a virtuoso performer in his own right: As a youngster, Milwaukee native Robert Bell overhead the guitar while waiting for his piano lesson, and at 13 his fate was sealed. Yet he did not pursue guitar professionally until his late 20s when he was pulled in by the music of Django. Attraction to theater work led him to form the septet, the Bellcats. But it was his Django tribute shows in 2002 that led to weekly bookings at the Times Bar and Café, and ultimately to his first encounter with Reynold Philipsek. Guitarist Philipsek first heard the music of gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt as an eighteen-year-old, and has been pursing the spirit of Django and Stephane Grapelli ever since. With 25 recordings to his credit, this St. Cloud native first met Robert Bell when the two were independently playing in the same building–Bell on the upper level (Times) and Philipsek on the lower level (Jitters). The two were soon performing as a duo.

Although a math major in college at the U of M, and a computer programmer/analyst for the Mayo Clinc, bassist Matt Senjum has been active on the Twin Cities Jazz scene for the past 12 years, including appearances with the Creole Four, Parisota Hot Club, and Robert Bell’s Bellcats. When the new Bell-Philipsek duo was ready to expand, Bell wasted no time bringing in Senjum. Master of improvisation on violin, Gary Schulte is a veteran of Prairie Home Companion who has appeared with numerous theater and music ensembles, including the Parisota Hot Club, over his 40-year career. After playing a few times with Bell, Philipsek and Senjum, The Twin Cities Hot Club was permanently a quartet. A year later, the band released its first CD; they’ve since been featured on KBEM and MPR, and were nominated as Best Jazz group for 2006 by the Minnesota Music Academy. Not a bad resumé for a two-year-old band!

Viewing the performance portion of the DVD is much like sitting in the back of the Times’ dining room and watching the weekly (Sunday night) TCHC gig, with the dance floor crowded with swing dancing couples, the band on the raised stage at the far end of the room. One immediate difference, however, is the much improved sound (thanks to sound engineer John Hammond). Another enhancement is the close-up views of the musicians, although the video resolution suggests a thin veil of smoke hanging in the air—given the six-month old smoking ban at the time of this recording, one has to assume this reflects imperfections in resolution rather than a nicotine haze!

The performance component of the DVD—filling about half of the recording’is straightforward, no commentary, no obvious post-recording edits. What you see and hear is the quartet at their standing Sunday night gig. Eleven tunes are included, all popular hotclub fare ranging from the McHugh/Fields classic, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (Baby)” to “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a couple Django pleasers, and a few originals from Bell and Philipsek. Guest vocalists Maud Hixson (with impeccable French on “Chez Moi”) and Erin Schwab (steaming on “Nature Boy”) round out the cast. Overall, Bell’s description of the genre describes the vibe of the TCHC, perhaps most definitively displayed on Reinhardt’s “Nuages”: “There’s so much heart involved in the music, a minor modality and infectious rhythm, and somehow there is joy in all that!” These guys swing hard at all times while never masking the emotional nuances and melodic tone. And it’s a treat to sit back and listen to, and watch, acoustic strings.

There’s a fifteen-minute testimonial segment following the live performance, a series of brief interviews with the fans at the Times during the gig. And these are fans, not just patrons of the Times. They love the Twin Cities Hot Club and are at no loss for words in communicating their respect and enjoyment. But fifteen minutes is a bit much—and after a while I was ready to skip ahead to the interview segment, a much more engaging and informative fifteen minutes. The foursome discuss their attraction to gypsy jazz, the background of their partnership, their goals for performance. Philipek in particular describes how performing for dancers has shaped the group’s approach, noting that hot club music involves more audience participation than does mainstream jazz, and to cater more to the ever-present dancers, the band has cut back on the length of individual solos.

Live at the Times on DVD will help bring an evening with the Twin Cities Hot Club right into your living room, and you won’t have to wait til Sunday night to enjoy the show or spin across your own dance floor. But it still isn’t quite like being there—so plan to come to the Times Bar and Café this weekend, Friday and Saturday (February 9-10) at 9:30 pm, and the usual Sunday slot at 8 pm. No cover, just joy!

The Times Bar and Café is located at 201 E. Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis; visit www.timesbarandcafe.com. For more about the Twin Cities Hot Club and the new DVD, visit www.twincitieshotclub.com