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Sunday, May 19, 2002

Swingin' from Paris to Austin

Since authenticity is an important consideration for the Hot Club of Cowtown, the Austin, Texas, trio who play a mix of Western swing and hot jazz, it's easy to locate them on the musical map. Western swing was mostly invented and popularized by the legendary Bob Wills in the '30s and '40s in Texas, while the more chamber-like hot jazz style was mainly developed in 1930s Paris by the Hot Club quintet, featuring gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grapelli, who many believe were copying New York jazz pioneers Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti.

News photo
Elana Fremerman, Whit Smith and Jake Erwin take hot jazz and mix it with western swing, hence the Hot Club of Cowtown.

But while both genres have had enough boosters over the years to guarantee continued life, most musicians who play them shy away from the pure forms. Western swing's most valuable postwar proselytizers may in fact have been the hippie-boogie big band Asleep at the Wheel, whose Wills covers were often tongue-in-cheek. And while Django has never gone out of style, the best jazz album of recent memory dedicated to his legacy was made by a sax player, James Carter.

"Django's finally getting noticed again, which is great," says HCC's own guitarist, Whit Smith, in a telephone interview from his home in Austin. "But what's interesting is how many bluegrass and country musicians are familiar with the Hot Club of France, while many younger jazz musicians are not."

Being based in Austin and recording for the indie label Bloodshot gives the trio another hat to wear, that of alt country artists (their third album was produced by alt country Svengali Lloyd Maines).

HCC's music may be easy to classify, but not so the people who come to see them; neither Smith nor violinist Elana Fremerman, speaking separately from her own home, seems comfortable describing the group's audience.

"It depends on the venue," says Fremerman. "Sit-down places tend to attract older audiences, but we play a lot of nightclubs. We get hipsters on the West Coast, people who dance. Our audience is actually getting younger. The more our name gets out there, the more people who have never had any exposure to this kind of music want to hear it."

Still, HCC's tossed salad appeal has had another effect, according to the fiddler. "The first time we went to Europe, two summers ago, we played the Cambridge Folk Festival in England. And then we played at a blues festival in the Netherlands," Fremerman says. "We're going to France in July to play a country music festival." For some reason, they've never been invited to a jazz festival.

Smith and Fremerman are too young to have heard their musical forbears in the flesh. As with many guitarists, Smith, who grew up in the Northeast, wanted to be a rock star. He didn't start playing western swing until 1988.

"I taught myself Eddie Lang licks, steel guitar and fiddle tunes, Django. I wasn't doing any one thing well, but I put together a western band in New York City. For the first few years, it was like four guitars and a steel, which means it was all country guitar jazz," says Smith. "Then I put together an 11-piece swing band called Western Caravan, which turned into a regular Monday night gig at the Rodeo Bar in New York.

"I liked western swing because it has a driving rhythm and a strong, basic melody, something you can whistle," he continues. "And you can solo your brains out. Charlie Parker stuff can be incorporated just as easily as country fiddle. It all sounds authentic."

Fremerman's introduction was similarly delayed, though her upbringing was closer to the source. "I grew up in Kansas, but I played classical violin as a kid. I also worked at horse ranches, and I suppose that aspect helped determine my love for this kind of music. But I don't think I ever really listened to Bob Wills until the early '90s," she says. "Someone played me those recordings, and I was like, 'Oh my God.' Here was something I'd been looking for all my life and I didn't even know it."

Fremerman, who attended Barnard in New York, met Smith after she placed an ad in The Village Voice for fiddle work.

"Unfortunately, the cab fare exceeded the performance fee, so I left [Western Caravan] and got a full-time job playing in a Top 40 country band," she explains. "Then Whit and I moved to San Diego, where we played for tips in the park and at cafes, just country and jazz duets. Whit had a friend with a beach cottage that was very cheap. We spent exactly a year there. It's where we got our repertoire up and running. We figured if it's possible in San Diego, then we should do better in Texas."

Still, considering the irony overload that accompanied the short-lived swing revival of the mid-'90s, it seems likely that some people will approach HCC as a gimmick. "I hope we're not a novelty act," Smith says, "I mean, true, we don't generally play for people who prefer classic jazz, but we do get a lot of people who like traditional jazz, meaning Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke."

Fremerman expands on this idea by saying that the band dresses up onstage because that's the proper sartorial context for the music.

"Whit and Jake [Erwin, the bass player] always wear ties. I wear dresses. Remember, the women in the Wills band didn't wear cowgirl outfits. They wore tea dresses with pearls and heels. I don't go that far," she says. "I wear whatever I think is hip and easy to play in, but in its day, Western swing was cosmopolitan. Yes, there are some aspects of it that are really 'Ya-hoo!' and foot stomping, but it's possible to stomp one's foot elegantly."

There's not much "Ya-hoo!" in the group's vocals, a component that's necessary since, in addition to hot jazz workouts like "Tchavalo Swing" and barn-burners like "Orange Blossom Special," HCC also perform standards like "Star Dust" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams."

Both musicians admit that singing is a secondary avocation. "With each record, we hope that our vocals improve," states Fremerman, whose models are Mildred Baily, Kay Starr and, especially, Blossom Dearie: "her delivery, her classiness, her wit."

Smith cites Jack Teagarden, another vocalist who is better known as a jazz instrumentalist (trombone). "Basically, I try to sing without any affectation," he says. "I weed out anything that might sound like folk or rock."

When it's suggested that his plain phrasing resembles Willie Nelson's, he sounds genuinely pleased.

"I have a videotape of Willie Nelson from about 1967, when he had short hair and wore turtlenecks, and he sings some western swing songs," he says. "That video had a definite impact on me. I watched it dozens of times before I ever attempted to sing."

Hot Club of Cowtown play May 28, 7 p.m., at Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka (6,000 yen; [06] 6281-8181); May 29, 7 p.m., at Hiroshima Club Quattro (6,000 yen; [082] 542-2280); May 30, 7 p.m., at Kyoto Cafe Independent (5,500 yen; [075] 255-4312); June 1, 7 and 9:30 p.m., at Kanazawa Mokkiriya (first show 3,500 yen, second show 5,000 yen; [076] 264-3672); June 3, 7 p.m., at Shibuya Club Quattro, Tokyo (6,000 yen; [03] 3477-8750). All prices for advance tickets; prices slightly higher at the door.

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