GYPSY  SWING, SOUTHERN BLUES, POPULAR STANDARDS    COMING STRAIGHT OUT OF SOUTHWEST LOUISIANA


More Whoopee Juice, Ann? by David McGee

In the year of our Lord 2010, the 100th year since the birth of Django Reinhardt, the music made by the king of gypsy jazz, and the music inspired by the king of gypsy jazz, simply will not go away. For this we are thankful. Celebrated in various quarters on the centennial of his birth, Reinhardt remains one of the most intriguing figures in music history. However colorful his biography, though, the more salient Django factoid is that an entire subculture celebrates his legacy in song and style every day somewhere on the planet. 

Ann Savoy’s Black Coffee is not, per se, a Django tribute, as are the latest albums from John Jorgenson (One Stolen Night and Istiqbal Gathering) and Frank Vignola (100 Years of Django); rather, it honors the spirit, the style, the humanity and, indeed, the craftsmanship of the Django era, when the tools of artistry were employed in the service of poetic evocations of life experience. Her Sleepless Knights band members seem thoroughly, impeccably schooled in le jazz hot—guitarist Tom Mitchell crafts lovely, dazzling single- and multi-string runs on what certainly sounds like a familiar, robust-toned Selmer guitar; fiddler Kevin Wimmer shadows the singer with plaintive, emotional (and frolicsome, too, humor always being a fundamental building block of this music) supporting commentary, as the rhythm section of Eric Frey (upright bass), Chas Justus (rhythm guitar) and Glenn Fields (drums) holds it all down while adding propulsive energy or subtle ballast as the occasion demands. (Fields and Frey even get their own tasty solo interludes—and make the most of those fleeting moments with some delightful whiz-bang theatrics--during stop-time breaks in the album opening “I Cried For You,” an ebullient entry from the Billie Holiday canon.) The band proves its mettle early on by tackling Django’s monument, “Nuages,” so daunting an instrumental tour de force in Django’s hands that even Frank Vignola, an acknowledged master of gypsy jazz guitar, approached the tune with some trepidation on his 100 Years album. Here, though, Savoy delicately coos the rarely sung but beautifully impressionistic lyrics (in French), which puts a different kind of pressure on the players, to find an instrumental voice to complement Savoy’s singing without stealing the show from her. So they do, settling into a sensuous, sultry groove that heightens the romantic ambience her seductive vocal creates, then enhances it when first Mitchell and then Wimmer step forward with quietly sizzling solo turns ahead of some frisky dialogue with drummer Fields—a performance touching in effect, exhilarating in execution.

As noted above, however, Black Coffee is more than a Django tribute. As versatile a vocalist as any around now, Savoy brings a le jazz hot sensibility to the work of others who were of Django’s time, predate his time, or came after his time. The swinging title track comes from 1935, one of Django’s prime years, by way of the one-armed New Orleans trumpeter/bandleader Wingy Manone, buddy to the father of jazz violin Joe Venuti, who had a profound influence on Stephane Grappelli and was a prolific songwriter in his own right. His “Black Coffee” is basically an ode to sobering up after a long night of “a little too much whoopee juice,” sung by Savoy at a playful pace with plenty of room for Wimmer and Mitchell to make their own feisty reports in support of Savoy’s strutting vocal. Swaggering and bluesy, she takes on Bessie Smith’s suggestive classic, “Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time,” on which fiddler Wimmer becomes a second, come-hither voice instrumentally; another side of Bessie emerges when Savoy romps through her quintessential kissoff song, “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon,” sung with heated insouciance to a slug of a man whose ability to satisfy our insatiable heroine has long since deserted him, leading her not merely to send him packing but to taunt him with gleeful reports of her new man’s prowess (“this man has taught me more about love than you will ever know/he is the king of lovin’/just minus of a crown”). It hurts good. On another front, those familiar with the very different versions of “My Funny Valentine” recorded first by Chet Baker (1952) and later (1955) by Frank Sinatra will find in Savoy’s approach here a worthy new interpretation, spare and haunting, with her winsome reading initially accompanied only by Mitchell’s subdued chording and stark soloing, until Wimmer adds a lone, crying fiddle to the mix before quickly receding from the mix. Again, the Django touchstone is impossible to ignore—written by Rodgers and Hart in 1937 for the Broadway musical Babes in Arms, the song’s introduction coincided with Django and his Quintette de Hot Club de France flourishing in the heated Paris culture of the day, when Picasso and Modigliani were ruling the art world, Hemingway and Joyce were at the top of their craft, Josephine Baker was setting the music halls ablaze, and everywhere art, music, literature and theater were bursting with new ideas and fresh vision. At the time George and Ira Gershwin penned “Embraceable You,” in 1928, and it made its debut in 1930 in the Broadway musical Girl Crazy, of course, Django was abandoning his first instrument, the banjo-guitar, immersing himself in the first recordings he had heard of American jazz musicians, taking up the guitar and meeting Stephane Grappelli. In and of itself, the inclusion of the Gershwin’s timeless romantic entreaty might seem to have little connection to the Django era, but Savoy’s dreamy, smoldering reading (“sweat inducing” might also describe it), in a duet with Mitchell, consciously evokes Reinhardt in an arrangement that takes the lyric “you bring out the gypsy in me” seriously—not only is the ambiance strictly that of a Parisian bote of another time, another place, but Wimmer’s concluding Grappelli-like swoon on the violin and Savoy’s re-entrance singing tenderly in French underscore the longing for this lost world of romance and its elevated, signifying language. Best known for her compelling mastery of Cajun music as a member of both the Savoy Family Band and the Savoy Doucet Band, as well as an incredible duet album with Linda Ronstadt, 2006’s Grammy nominated Adieu False Heart (on which the two were billed as the Zozo Sisters), and not least of all as part of the all-woman band The Magnolia Sisters, Savoy can clearly do pretty much whatever she wants musically and have it turn out vital and memorable. She does the songs on Black Coffee proud, her versions standing toe-to-toe with many of the original treatments. How great would it be for this music—and for us--if she hung around these parts for awhile?