July 06, 2009
Our own maestro, Jeffrey Kahane, has recently played piano on three tracks of a CD by the Hot Club of San Francisco, Bohemian Maestro: Django Reinhardt and the Impressionists. I am embarrassed to say that I am just now getting around to reviewing it, despite the fact that it was released on the Azica label last Thanksgiving, and I have had it since a couple weeks thereafter. To make matters worse, three months later, unbeknownst to me, the CD received a rave review from Dr. Judith Schlesinger on-line at All About Jazz, where I also write; you can read the review here. Although we have never met “in the flesh,” Judith and I have been “cyberfriends” since 1992; she is a great fan and reviewer of jazz music, and, as a clinical psychologist, she has extensively reviewed the issue of “creativity and madness” (she believes there is no credible literature supporting a relationship between the two). My only excuse for this delay, other than our travel to Southeast Asia for five weeks and then to London for three weeks to see our 19-month-old granddaughter and her newborn little sister, and our preparations to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary later this month, is the extent to which my teaching load has mushroomed; I’m not sure I ever worked harder when I was “working!” Oh, well: Evan Esar, in Esar’s Comic Dictionary, defines play as “work that you enjoy doing for nothing…”
Judith begins her review with the comment, “This could be the most ingenious tribute I’ve ever heard: it’s not just the music of a much-loved legend, but the sounds that surrounded and inspired him as well. In this case the legend is Django Reinhardt, and the tribute-makers are the reliably terrific Hot Club of San Francisco [HCSF] and their classy classical guests: pianist/conductor Jeffrey Kahane, on three tracks, and the all-female, all-woodwind Aeros Quintet, on two.
“Bohemian Maestro offers a generous buffet of 16 songs, including some by Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton; a taste of jaunty Parisian street music; notable originals by HCSF leader Paul Mehling and violinist Evan Price, and seven lesser-known Reinhardt compositions, including his own ‘Bolero.’ The works of Reinhardt’s contemporaries are arranged in his style, a brilliant device which gives the listener a virtual window into how he heard and likely performed the music of his time (he lived from 1910 to 1953). Finally, the thoughtful, often witty track descriptions place Django’s music in context, while the choice of selections underlines its unique and timeless appeal; as Mehling puts it, gypsy music is ‘hot, mysterious, emotional and romantic.’”
Evan Price, by the way, has been a member of the classical/jazz crossover group The Turtle Island String Quartet for more than ten years; we have been fans of the group for more than 20 years. He composed one of the selections, “Le Jongleur,” on this CD and arranged four others, three by Django and one by Claude Debussy. With regard to Django, we share a healthy appreciation of him with our son Bruce; two years ago, I reviewed a book on him entitled Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz that I initially bought for Bruce as a present; if you are so inclined, you can read the review here.
I’m especially taken by Jeffrey’s three tracks; they are inconspicuously virtuosic, as we would expect, and they sparkle with wit and good humor; they swing, they are perfectly in character, and in “Vendredi 13,” Jeffrey obviously indulges himself ebulliently in both stride piano and improvisation. Judith comments, “There are many delights on this tenth release from the HCSF. On Reinhardt’s rollicking ‘Vendredi 13,’ the striding of Kahane’s piano adds an unusual counterweight to the guitars and violin while paying tribute to Maurice Ravel, who was known to sit in with the guitarist and his crew.”
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Jeffrey about the making of this recording, and I’m pleased to share that interview with you.
Bob: Once again, Jeffrey, I am delighted to welcome you to The Stream . Thanks again for taking time to share with us.
Jeffrey: It’s always my pleasure, Bob. I’m sorry it’s taken us awhile to get together…
Bob: Given the hellacious schedule you keep, I marvel that you ever find time for us, and I’m most grateful whenever you do! But, I’m curious: how did this CD come about, and how did you happen to become involved with it?
Jeffrey: Many years ago, during my tenure as music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony, I had the idea of inviting the Turtle Island String Quartet, of which Evan Price (now one of the Hot Club of San Francisco) was a member , to do an evening of music with the orchestra. (Evan’s wife, Deborah, one of the most highly respected violinists in the Bay Area, had only recently begun playing associate principal 2nd violin in the Symphony at the time; I think she still is.) The evening was a great success artistically, and, although I didn’t play a note with the Quartet that night, I guess my enthusiasm for building bridges between different musical worlds stuck with Evan. Many years later, out of the blue, I got a call from Evan asking if I’d like to play a few tunes with them on their new album. He explained that the project was going to be based on Django Reinhardt’s interaction with the great classical composers of the 20’s and 30’s, on his influence on them, and vice-versa.
My initial reaction was highly skeptical, but not about the project or the music. (Django is one of my great musical heroes; in fact my dog is named after him! My son recently wrote a piece for me, in honor of my dog and, to a lesser extent, his namesake.) My concern was about my ability to step into a first-rate group of highly experienced, real jazzers. I’ve dabbled in jazz and other non-classical idioms since I was a kid, but I have never thought myself anything other than a “dabbler.” Evan was quite persuasive, however, and although it took quite a while to find a time when we were all available, we finally came up with a date last summer. We went into a studio in Berkeley where the Hot Club of San Francisco regularly records.
Bob: Very interesting… What was it like, working with these musicians? How much time did you have to rehearse? How many takes were you allowed?
Jeffrey: Working with them was at once humbling, scary, thrilling, and, at moments, one of the most joyful things I’ve ever done. There was very little rehearsal. They gave me some basic charts (essentially, for those not familiar with the terminology, that means a melody line with chord changes indicated—a skeleton around which to improvise), and off we went. We probably spent a little less than an hour letting the engineers try to get the sound just right, while we played through the tunes a few times, and then they started the “tape” rolling. I’d guess we did maybe 4 or 5 takes of each of the tunes, and the whole thing from start to finish took less than 3 hours, as far as my participation was concerned.
The guys were unbelievably supportive. Since everything beyond the basic chord and melody structure was pretty much completely improvised, this was extremely stressful for me: while I’ve been improvising in one form or another since I started to play the piano, this was a particular kind of improvisation that I’d only rarely done, and certainly never under time pressure in a recording situation. I was acutely self-critical, and it was a challenge to remain relaxed when it came time for my solos, but they were just constantly cheering me on, and seemed completely delighted to have me there. They are an amazing bunch of musicians, and very generous human beings.
Bob: What a remarkable opportunity for you…and how fortunate for them to have gotten you to collaborate! The CD has had some wonderful reviews; do you have any plans to follow up on this effort?
Jeffrey: We haven’t had any discussions at this point about future collaborations, but now that I’ve gotten my feet wet and know that I can survive it, I’d welcome the chance to do some more. In any case, I’m very happy and honored to have been involved in the project and thrilled that everyone in the group seems so happy with the way it turned out. And I gather that the press has been very favorable…
Bob: Amazon.com posts nine reviews, and they are all most congratulatory. Several of them specifically mention the technical excellence of the recording; one editorial reviewer called it “letter perfect, the sound field perfectly positioned, and the balance warm, allowing every aspect of the disc to flow out to its natural perimeters.” High praise, indeed!
Thanks so much again, Jeffrey, for sharing your experience with us. It helps us to appreciate the recording that much more…!
Jeffrey: As always, my pleasure, Bob.
Judith concludes her review with the comment: “Bohemian Maestro provides invaluable insight into an especially lively and creative time in Paris, bringing us deep into the heart of it. The kaleidoscopic selections are woven together so seamlessly that the CD nearly feels through-composed, while still fulfilling a primary goal of this group: the production of ‘spontaneous joy.’ It’s rare for joy to be this educational, but then the Hot Club of San Francisco is an unusually brilliant group.”