The Hot Club of Cowtown: Sizzling Chops, Soulful Playing

by delarue

The Hot Club of Cowtown‘s name pretty much says it all. Over the years, they’ve put a jaunty Djangoesque jolt into western swing. Their latest album, Rendezvous in Rhythm finds the trio going deeper into the Romany side of their music than ever before, with rewarding results. Otherwise, the interplay between Whit Smith’s guitar and Elana James’ violin is as lively and bracing as always, and the personalities haven’t changed:  Smith the suave crooner and James the coy and often devious jazzkitten, with Jake Erwin providing a resolute, rock-solid foundation on bass. They’re at Subculture on April 2 at 8 PM; $20 advance tix are recommended.

The songs are equal part sizzle and soul, perfectly encapsulized by the album’s opening track, a version of the old Russian folk song Dark Eyes that nonchalantly speeds up until the band essentially comes full circle, guitar eventually giving way to shivery violin.The rest of the songs are a mix of mostly familiar hot jazz standards along with a handful of lesser-known tunes, all rearranged with the band’s edgy panache. A low-key take of I’m in the Mood for Love is the most traditional of those numbers. Melancholy Baby gets a slow, comfortable intro and then some snazzily ornamented violin phrasing. James sings Crazy Rhythm with a Prohibition-era sass, Smith’s guitar taking the song forward about thirty years before another goosebump-inducing violin solo.

Which came first: Til There Was You, or If I Had You? That’s the question raised by the band’s version of the latter, James’ precise, breathy delivery bringing to mind Meg Reichardt of Les Chauds Lapins. The Continental, a tune for all the cutters on the dancefloor, contrasts soaring violin with the guitar’s mutedly flurrying, swinging pulse.

Sweet Sue Just You gets a bouncy swing treatment where Smith sounds like he’s about to jump out of his shoes before James introduces a comforting calm on the second verse. A midtempo take of I’m Confessin has the guitar artfully mimicking the violin’s eerily shimmery, insistently staccato lines. James sings Slow Boat to China with the sly determination of a woman hell-bent on a hookup, the guitar and then the vocals really picking it up as it winds out – she distinguishes herself not only as an imaginative, counterintuitive violinist but also as a singer here. Sunshine of Your Smile is the closest thing here to the Texas/Oklahoma swing that the band made a name themselves with.

There are a couple of Al Jolson songs here: Avalon, a Romany jazz take on roaring 20s vaudeville pop, with a characteristically spiraling guitar solo as the high point, and Back in Your Backyard, with its tight violin/guitar harmonies. And the two strongest tracks might be the Django covers. Lots of bands do Minor Swing, or for that matter, a lot of familiar Django Reinhardt songs with a frantic, uptight beat, but these folks swing the hell out of the song, the swirls and restlessness of the violin handing off elegantly to Smith’s snarling, spiky chordal attack. And the minor blues Douce Ambiance is more like more Ambiance Amère, James’ violin bringing in a welcome, raw, chromatically-fueled intensity as the band races through to an abrupt, cold ending. Who is the audience for this? It’s more straight-up jazz-oriented than the rest of the band’s catalog, but it’s just as accessible and tuneful. This band has come a long way since the days back in the 90s and early zeros when their usual stop in Manhattan was Rodeo Bar.