Longevity certainly has its advantages – but for musicians seeking legendary status, an early departure often seals the deal.
Widely revered and pervasively influential, French violinist Stéphane Grappelli died some 45 years after Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, with whom he founded the epochal Quintet of the Hot Club of France in 1934. While Grappelli is hardly forgotten, his short-lived but ostentatiously talented collaborator continues to get the lion’s share of the credit for creating the Hot Club’s ebulliently swinging Gypsy jazz sound.
This weekend, Freight & Salvage presents the second Esprit de Django et Stéphane Festival, a three-day event that makes a compelling case for the Hot Club’s expansive and enduring influence, while also seeking to recalibrate the historical record to reflect Grappelli’s vast contributions.
“Grappelli is the patron saint of jazz violin,” says violinist David Balakrishnan, who performs Saturday with the latest incarnation of the jazz-infused, Grammy-winning Turtle Island Quartet. “His influence is so large it’s almost a given. I hear his sound coming from everybody, but Django did overshadow him, and I know Grappelli was upset about that. You couldn’t talk to him about it. He’d get edgy.”
Given the violin’s marginal role in jazz since the 1930s swing era, Grappelli’s innovations often resounded more deeply in bluegrass. The Freight festival opens Friday with sensational fiddler Elana James‘ Hot Club of Cowtown, a trio that explores the twangy intersection between Gypsy jazz and Western swing.
In a particularly apt booking, the Dave Grisman Sextet closes the festival Sunday. The mandolin master reintroduced Grappelli to the United States when he featured him on the soundtrack for the 1978 film “King of the Gypsies,” a relationship that led to the violinist’s touring with Grisman’s band (and the 1981 Warner Bros. album “Stéphane Grappelli/David Grisman Live”).
Anything but a musical chameleon, Grappelli brought his effortless elegance and sumptuous sound to a vast array of settings without altering his essential approach. When he died in 1997 at 89, he had recorded with greats including Duke Ellington, Gary Burton, Jean-Luc Ponty, Yo-Yo Ma, L. Subramaniam and Paul Simon.
However fraught their relationship off the bandstand, Grappelli and Reinhardt never found a more inspired collaboration. They weren’t the first great guitar/violin partnership in jazz (that was Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti), but “Django and Stéphane took it to a whole other level,” says guitarist George Cole, whose combo Eurocana, with Nashville fiddler Stephan Dudash, opens every show as the festival’s house band.
A veteran rock guitarist and teacher (who mentored Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong), Cole devoted himself to a Djangocentric approach about a decade ago, drawn to the particular sonorities created by the fiddle/guitar pairing.
“The instruments are just a match made in heaven,” he says. “The guitar is like musical pointillism, while the violin produces these gorgeous long notes. Django gets a lot of the credit as the Big Bang of the guitar, but they go together. It’s the point/counterpoint that really creates the sound.”
8 p.m. Friday-Sunday. $24.50-$39.50. Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 644-2020. www.thefreight.org.
By Joe Sweeney
NEWS CONTRIBUTING REVIEWER
on January 5, 2013 – 7:52 PM, updated January 5, 2013 at 7:52 PM
The air outside Sportsmen’s Tavern on Friday night definitely felt like January in Buffalo. But inside, when George Cole & Eurocana started playing, you could’ve sworn it was April in Paris.
The concept of this percussion-less Bay Area jazz quartet is apparent in its name. Under the guidance of songwriter and lead guitarist Cole, the group appeals to Francophiles and Cole Porter junkies alike, delivering white-hot gypsy jazz rhythms in the form of Tin Pan Alley pop songs – music that longs for the Left Bank and Central Park, simultaneously.
The latter was evident on the opening song, an ode to the pinstriped past of Gershwin’s New York called “Riverside Drive.” When the group launched into the subsequent tune, the smoldering flamenco instrumental “Valentino,” the band’s bi-coastal dichotomy was in full force.
While a majority of the songs shared Friday were proper pop constructions inspired by Cole’s crooner heroes – he specifically referenced Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby in between songs – his singing and songwriting abilities were not what made this show special. Cole’s lyrics, while pleasant enough, aren’t exactly original (e.g. “Walk down the street/My heart skips a beat”). No, this night was all about musicianship. Of the highest order.
Cole’s guitar playing is a marvel to see up close, his fingers leaping all over the fret board, his pick churning out the notes with a velocity and verve that would make Django Reinhardt proud. The fact that his resume includes teaching Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt (who went on to form Green Day) and touring with classic rock icon Joe Walsh is a credit to his versatility.
Rhythm guitarist Mathias Minquet (a Parisian for real) held his own as well, including on a gorgeous solo snippet where he played nothing but harmonics. Violinist Stephan Dudash gave the music a distinctly American kind of grit – that is until he broke into an inspired rendition of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5.”
And bassist/vocalist Kaeli Earle shared the spotlight with Cole in most, harmonizing, singing lead, walking with command, and slinging out an amazing scat solo on the second-set number “Girl From Minnesota.”
Just as crucial as the people on stage was the venue itself. For all of its energy, this is the kind of music that could be seen as nothing more than some frothy retro fun, stuff that would blend into the background of a Prohibition theme party. But the way the Sportsmen’s is built, letting you feel right on top of the stage whether you’re on the floor or balcony – along with the appreciation of music that oozes from its 8 x 10 glossy-laden walls – makes it impossible not to respect the craft.
For its encore, George Cole & Eurocana took full advantage of this intimacy, stepping off the stage and delivering a pair of songs away from the microphones. It was a generous gesture from these talented people, one that the small but adoring crowd took to heart. As this unamplified music filled the space, its melodies reverberating off the pitched wooden roof, its warmth left us ready to step out and face the cold midnight with a smile.
“Though San Franciscan George Cole cut his teeth as a rock guitarist, and was at one point a mentor to Billy Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt(soon to be famous as Green Day), it took the 50-year-old a few decades into his career to confess to his first love-swing music of the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s. Not just any swing music, either-Cole fell for both the Great American Songbrook stuff and the “gypsy jazz” of the legendary Django Reinhardt and his Quintette du Hot Club de France.
Blending the fire of Reinhardt with the ice of say, Cole Porter or Bing Crosby, might not seem like an obvious move, but Cole made it work, bathing his own compositions in the forgiving glow of nostalgic familiarity, and adding a healthy dose of instrumental virtuosity to the equation, as evidenced by the George Cole Quintet’s latest effort, “Riverside Drive.”
The George Cole Quintet brings its hybrid swing sound to the Sportsmen’s Tavern(326 Amherst Street) at 7 p.m. Wednesday.”
-Jeff Meirs- 12/30/11- Buffalo Evening News
Published: Wednesday, December 28, 2011, 6:22 AM
By Dawn Veltman | The Muskegon Chronicle
WHITEHALL — ‘String’ in the new year with the George Cole Quintet and an evening of elegant and whimsical jazz.
The San Francisco-based national touring group’s style, dubbed “Eurocana,” is a rich blend of the Great American Songbook and the string-driven swing created by French gypsy-jazz legends Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in 1930s Paris.
Cole, 50, is the band’s lead vocalist, guitarist, composer and producer. And while the songs and lyrics the group performs are all originals, what comes to mind is the music of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, the Gershwins, Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz — his heroes.
“It’s like pop music only from another era; it’s very accessible,” explains Cole. “It’s so authentic, what we play will sound as if you’ve heard it before.
“We’re an acoustic string band — very romantic and delicate — but with a sound that has a lot of muscle. Our guitar-driven rhythm, called le pompe or “the pump,” is what gives our music its energy and a twist on the Great American Songbook.”
In addition to Cole, the ensemble features Hale Baskin, vocals; Nancy Kuo, violin; Jimmy Grant, rhythm guitar; and Christopher Bastian, bass.
It wasn’t until about eight years ago that Cole began playing Eurocana-style music. Before than, he had another life, he said, as a rock guitarist. He’s performed with such stars as Chris Isaak, Joe Walsh and Keely Smith, among others.
He’s appeared on Grammy-nominated releases and has won a California Music Award for Best New Major Label Artist.
One of Cole’s claims to fame is having been a mentor to Green Day guitarist Billy Joe Armstrong and bassist Mike Dirnt.
“I’m super proud of them and their tremendous success,” he says.
His turning point came when he saw a performance by Bireli Lagrene, a French guitarist and bassist in the style of Reinhardt. He sold all of his electric guitars, amplifiers and electronic musical gadgets the very next day, he said.
“I grew up in the rock era,” he explains, “but the secret is that I always liked my parents’ music — Bing Crosby, the Andrew Sisters, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra. … I was the odd one, and kept it to myself. Now I guess I’m out of the closet and, since I started touring, find that there are many more out there who love this music just like me.
“Truth be told, I never imagined that I’d play this music professionally, but I’ve discovered there is a real interest. And when I began writing and singing the songs, it just came out in the style of my earliest musical influences. I was as surprised as anyone at what I was creating.”
Cole said the quintet is real people playing real instruments in real time.
“And, I think, in this era of so much electronic dance music, people value that. I love the nostalgia we create. There’s something that’s comforting that we do — especially during the holiday season — to see someone really performing and playing live without electronic backup.”
Recordings Cole has produced include “Riverside Drive” released in 2010, “Samois Faire (The Hot Club)” from 2007, and the self-titled “George Cole” released in 2004.
“I have more fun playing this music than anything,” Cole said. “To see the expression on people’s faces, they really get a kick out of the guitar and violin pyrotechnics. It’s fun for us to turn people on to this new-old sound, and do it live.”
“People can look forward to great melodies, swing and, even though they’re originals, they’re (Cole Quintet) very easy to listen to,” said Lazaro Vega of Blue Lake Public Radio. “Guitar players will especially enjoy it as the players can really let it go.”
Cole said that, after two 50-minute sets with one intermission, the group will be on hand in the lobby to meet and greet audience members and sign autographs.
A cash bar will be open before, during and after the concert.
Dawn Veltman is a Chronicle correspondent.