CD Review: Hot Club of Cowtown – Rendezvous in Rhythm (Gold Strike, 2013)
Austin’s Hot Club of Cowtown has been mixing Western Swing and Gypsy Jazz since their inception in 1997. This lineup solidified in 2000, and though they split briefly in 2005, their careers continued to intertwine even as they explored separate pursuits. Reuniting in 2008, the band picked up where they left off, mixing covers and originals, and continuing to grow more adept at both writing their own material and interpreting that of others. In 2011 they paid tribute to half their roots with the Bob Wills tribute, What Makes Bob Holler, and their latest follows up with a salute to the other half, Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s Quintette du Hot Club de France.
The fourteen tracks focus on popular songs, show tunes and folk melodies that became jazz standards in 1930s Paris. The selections include the evergreens “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Crazy Rhythm,” and “If I Had You” (accidentally attributed as Irving Berlin’s like-titled composition), as well as a driving take on Reinhardt and Grappelli’s “Minor Swing” and several lesser-known tunes. The group displays their virtuosity both individually and as a trio, breaking out for solos and effortlessly weaving back together into tight improvisations. Elana James and Whit Smith each sing charmingly, Smith with more of a period style, but they also step into the spotlight with their fiddle and guitar to voice instrumental versions of “Dark Eyes,” “I’m Confessin'” and “Sunshine of Your Smile.”
The set focuses primarily on songs written in the 1920 and 30s, but reaches back to the early twentieth century for “Melancholy Baby” (reportedly first sung in public by William Frawley, later of I Love Lucy fame) and the British “Sunshine of Your Smile.” The song list also pulls in Reinhardt’s 1947 instrumental “Douce Ambiance” and Frank Loesser’s even more recent, 1948 that is, “Slow Boat to China.” It’s nice to hear the band indulge their jazz roots, particularly in this live acoustic setting; but the earthier spark of their western repertoire has always given their standards a kick, and is missed, even as their continental sounds enchant.