By JEREMY D. BONFIGLIO – H-P Features Writer
Published: Tuesday, December 27, 2011 11:31 AM EST
SOUTH HAVEN – George Cole did his time in the rock ‘n’ roll trenches.
He toured with Joe Walsh, recorded with legendary producer Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, Paul McCartney), and played alongside Warren Zevon.
About eight years ago, after seeing a group of gypsy jazz guitarists perform at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland, Calif., Cole went home and sold every electric guitar he owned.
“All my electric guitar friends thought I was crazy and probably still do,” Cole says by telephone from his home in San Francisco, “but I was ready to embark on this new journey. I grew up in the rock ‘n’ roll era, but the truth is I always secretly liked my parents’ music, and now I’m out of the closet.”
He now fronts the George Cole Quintet, an ensemble that draws its inspiration from the string-driven swing created by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli in 1930s Paris, and the Great American Songbook of composers such as George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter. The group will be playing at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Foundry Hall in South Haven.
“That was some of the first music I was exposed to as a child on my grandmother’s old record player, which I still have,” Cole says. “It’s a joyous sound and it’s amazing guitar playing. Jazz improvisation is like instantaneous composition, and when you hear Django playing it, it has this abandon to it that you never know what he’ll do next.”
Reinhardt’s jazz guitar technique (often called hot jazz) has become a living musical tradition within Belgian gypsy culture. After his third and fourth fingers of his left hand were badly burned and partially paralyzed in a fire, Reinhardt relearned his craft, playing all of his guitar solos with only two fingers, and using the two injured digits only for chord work. With violinist Grappelli, he co-founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France, and went on to compose the jazz standards “Minor Swing,” “Daphne,” “Belleville,” “Djangology,” “Swing ’42” and “Nuages.”
“I mostly see it as a style of music and not just an era,” Cole says. “Our take is a little different because we have vocalists and write our own songs but the sound is still that acoustic, French jazz string-driven sound.”
Cole, who was born in San Francisco, started playing accordion in kindergarten, then shifted to classical guitar between sixth and seventh grade. In high school, he studied guitar under a couple of Bay Area greats – the late Dan Boyd and Jimmy Luttrell, who played with Spade Cooley and Lawrence Welk in the ’50s.
He credits both men with putting him on a rather extraordinary musical path.
Cole was the lead guitarist for pop rock band Beatnik Beatch (Atlantic) and the American group Big Blue Hearts (Geffen/Interscope Records), which was produced by T Bone Burnett and toured with Walsh of the Eagles. Cole went on to play on Chris Isaak’s platinum-selling album, “Forever Blue,” and alongside folks such as Robert Cray, Boz Scaggs, Buster Poindexter and the late Zevon. As a long-time guitar teacher, Cole was an early mentor to Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt.
“San Francisco isn’t really an industry town but I ended up playing on a lot of records and did some producing over the years,” Cole says. “I’ve played rock. I’ve played blues. I’ve played country. I’ve slept around musically, and I’ve always enjoyed that.”
Seven years ago, Cole founded The Hot Club of Berkley, which was meant to be a Reinhardt tribute band until he started writing original music in the same vein.
“That was fine for a few months, but when I started writing and singing, the music took a different turn,” Cole says. “It’s so technically demanding. I don’t have time for anything else. It’s all I practice, it’s all I play to continue to get better.”
The George Cole Quintet, which also includes Jimmy Grant (rhythm guitar), Chris Bastian (upright bass), Nancy Kuo (violin) and Hale Baskin (vocals), is the latest incarnation of that effort. The band has been touring a little more than a year in support of its debut album “Riverside Drive,” which features 11 originals as well as Luttrell’s “Roma Danse,” arranged by Cole.
Tuesday’s set list, Cole says, will feature several songs off “Riverside Drive,” from the title track to the debut single “Ridin’ to the Poorhouse” as well as some instrumental and a surprise or two.
“Not to take anything away from classical guitarists or great bluegrass pickers, but to me this is sort of the highest calling on the guitar,” Cole says of the hot jazz style. “And now that I’ve figured it out, I pretty much adhere to that form.”