Jack "Monterey Jacques" Fields
New Testament of the Great American Songbook discovered in Berkeley, California
I think that the best way to review the debut CD "Samois Faire" from George Cole's "The Hot Club," is to frame it with some fictitious scenery. Here we go....
It's a Parisian Summer evening in 1938 and a very unusual confluence of Jazz forces has brought Django Reinhardt, Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, George and Ira Gershin, Noel Coward, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter together in an elegant hotel room above the Champs Elysées. They all recognized one other in the lounge during the intermission at a Josephine Baker show. Later, they were all partying at Porter's posh room, when one of them suggested that they put their heads together to write a musical. Oiled by genius, dozens of packs of Galois, and a never ending supply of Gin, they brainstorm through the night on their idea. By 11 AM the next morning, most of the party had wandered off; Cole Porter and Noel Coward rushed out the door to catch a DC-3 to London, leaving the room vacant... except for a binder filled with twelve songs... and the housekeeper. The housekeeper cleans the room, and keeps the binder.
Almost 80 long years pass. A young American musician and songwriter purchased beautiful a house near Berkeley, California that had been occupied for decades by a very elderly French lady. While most of the house had been cleaned and vacated, occasionally the young American would find a knick knack, or odd curio when fussing about odd, seldom used corners of the house. The curios, while not very valuable, told the story of a young and poor French girl who lived in Paris during the Jazz Age. One day, while cleaning the attic, the young American found a very old binder, filled with magic...
Okay, obviously what I've just written is fantasy. However, after listening to "Samois Faire," the tale seems mysteriously plausible. Here are the facts: Twelve of the songs on "Samois Faire" are penned by George Cole, or his mentor Jimmy Luttrell. One track is composed by virtuoso violinist and Hot Club of San Francisco alum, Julien Smedley. Eight tracks on the recording feature vocals. All of the lyrics were written by Cole. In one shot, on his debut CD, Cole has established himself to be possibly one of the most prolific composers and lyricists in Gypsy Jazz. This is however, more than a Gypsy Jazz CD; while some of the compositions, and certainly the instrumentation of the band (two guitars, two fiddles and a bass), give a respectful nod Django Reinhardt, the project when taken as a whole is an homage to all of the composers and writers I mentioned above, as well as all of the artists to come out of the Jazz Age.
All of the songs, while totally original compositions, have swingy hooks and catchy lyrics that makes them comfortable, memorable and instantly familiar. It's the musical equivalent of a new pair of Levi's stonewashed jeans: brand new, but they fit and wear like your old favorites. While ostensibly a swing album, the band very competently delves into waltz and bossa rhythms that adds a
welcome juxtaposition to the 4/4 chugging that charactarizes Gypsy Jazz. The guitar and fiddle playing is good and fast enough to be of interest to harder core Django Reinhardt fanatics. The lyrics and vocals have a humorous, if sometimes sarcastic edge, that will appeal to all audiences.
The band is a virtual "dream team" ensemble cast. George Cole is on guitar and vocals. Cole, while fairly new on the Gypsy Jazz scene, has been a well known professional musician in California for over 20 years. Vic Wong, who heads up the San Francisco group Anouman, pulls a double shift sharing the solo and rhythm duties in this band also. Wong's rhythm work is steady and in the pocket; his lead work bouncy, sweet and authentic. Violinist Julien Smedley, who played and recorded with Paul Mehling's "Hot Club of San Francisco," brings his flawless and tasteful lines to this project. What makes this band unique is the fact the it has two violinists; Kathy Sierra, who is possibly best known for her work with the celtic group "Golden Bough," and has played with notable musicians in that genre like mandolinist Lief Sorbye, not only plays violin, but sings also. In addition to her natural sense of swing, she has a great sense of humor and wit, and as such is an excellent parry for Cole. The musical interplay between Cole and Sierra is reminiscent of the best male/female vocal and comedy acts from the 30's and 40's (think George and Gracie, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Steve and Eydie or a swingy Sonny & Cher). Sam Bevan is featured on the CD cover as the bassist. However, Bevan's bass playing is present on only one track: Shiela's Waltz. Simon Planting, who is no stranger to Gypsy Jazz fans as the bassist for Fapy Lafertin, Robin Nolan, Renier Voet and Pigalle 44, lays down the law for most of the tracks on this recording. Hot Club of San Francisco leader, Paul Mehling, as well as Bassists Ari Munkres and Joe Kyle also make guest appearances.
There are some production and artistic choices that some may have executed differntly, and on occasion, the vocal parts do not always come through strongly, but these things keep this CD "real," and I couldn't imagine it sounding any other way. This is an excellent CD, and a swingin' debut that Gypsy Jazz fans and lovers of the "Great American Songbook," will really appreciate.
So, Cole has established that he can compose songs and write lyrics, as well as assemble and ensemble of top shelf musicians to join him on his musical adventure. The band is very tight, well rehearsed and spot on. What is great about this band is that they can also "pull it off" live, having performed to appreciative audiences at DjangoFest San Francisco in 2005 and 2006. That's savoir-faire.