.Django Unchained

The spirit of Django Reinhardt lives on with The Hot Club of San Francisco

The Hot Club of San Francisco plays music inspired by guitarist Django Reinhardt and his Quintette du Hot Club de France. Reinhardt changed the face of jazz in the early 1930s by incorporating the music he learned to play early in his career, with American swing. The result was his own unique improvisational style, often called jazz Manouche, Hot Club Swing or Gypsy jazz, although the term “gypsy” is considered to be pejorative by many. Oakland guitarist Paul Mehling started his Hot Club in 1990 after a long musical journey.

“I grew up in Santa Clara,” Mehling said. “My father was a record collector, so I listened to Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey—all the swing-era bands. That predisposed me to playing this kind of music.”

Mehling’s older sister introduced him to the Beatles. They inspired him to pick up a guitar and play in rock bands, but he didn’t find it satisfying. Then he heard Django. He taught himself violin, moved to Paris and began looking for musicians to collaborate with.

“I met Serge Krief, a Django-style guitarist,” Mehling said. “I made cassettes of his playing and learned how to improvise in his style.” After returning to California, he got a gig with Dan Hicks and his Acoustic Warriors. A few years later, he put together the first incarnation of The Hot Club of San Francisco.

“Django had friends that collected records,” Mehling said. “He picked up on American swing bands to initiate his style. He started by copying American jazz players and here we are, almost 50 years later, copying Gypsies who were copying Americans, although we concentrate on playing jazz, rather than trying to be Gypsies. I know there are discussions these days about the word ‘Gypsy,’ but the Gypsies I know, who are all playing this music, say, ‘I’m a Gypsy and I’m proud to be called a Gypsy.’”

In its 35-year career, The Hot Club of San Francisco has put out 16 albums, including Don’t Panic, released late last year. The record is a compilation of tunes from the band’s 2001 release Veronica, along with four unreleased songs from the same sessions.

Don’t Panic was cut live in the studio, with all the musicians, including the drummer, playing together. “I bring sheet music for our violin player, Evan Price, and chord charts for the rhythm-guitar players,” Mehling said, “but most of the arrangements had already been worked out in live performances. I think some auxiliary percussion was layered in after the initial recording, but I don’t remember. The sessions were done about 20 years ago.”

Some of the songs from that session were left out of the album, due to space restrictions. “It was fun listening to how we were playing 20-plus years ago,” Mehling said. “When you’re preparing for a release, you pick the best tunes you’ve cut or the ones you thought were the best at that time. Sometimes, when you listen to the songs that got pushed to the bottom of the list with fresh ears, you realize they’re still strong. I wasn’t in on the process of putting this album together, however. It was all done by Andrew. He went through the old session and put together a new album.”

“The idea behind this collection,” Mehling said, “was to re-acquaint folks with earlier recordings of my original tunes. It’s kind of a preview of our next recording OG: Original Gadjo, which we should have out next year. It’s all originals, including tunes by other members of the current lineup, Dexter Williams on bass, Christophe Carington and Jordan Samuels on rhythm guitars, and Evan on violin.”

“Gadjo is the Roma word for non-Gypsy,” Mehling continued. “The term OG used to refer to Old Guys or, more recently, Original Gangstas. We thought it was an interesting play on words. It showcases where we are right now as a band. We have the tunes written, but  the process of putting the music together hasn’t started yet.”

In the meantime, Mehling and various players from The Hot Club, sometimes a trio, sometimes a quartet, play every Wednesday evening at Scopo Divino. “Two guitars and a bass puts more focus on my lead guitar,” Mehling said. “I have to play most of the melodies and solos. Our bass player, Dexter Williams, is also an amazing soloist with great lyrical chops. We make a lot of music for three people.”

Le Jazz Hot Trio, or Quartet, plays every Wednesday from 5–8pm at Scopo Divino, 2800 California Street @ Divisadero, San Francisco. No cover, no minimum. 415.928.3728. scopodivino.com

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