Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Hot Club Christmas

Given his untimely death in 1953, there are many great jazz standards that Sinti jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt never had the chance to cover. He never had the occasion to record a set of Christmas carols either, leaving a void the Hot Club of San Francisco (HCSF) recently filled with Hot Club Cool Yule, a Christmas-themed release recorded in the swinging Roma-jazz style developed by Reinhardt during his tenure with French violinist Stéphane Grappelli in legendary Quintette du Hot Club de France.

The Hot Club Christmas starts on a distinctly hipsterish note with “Cool Yule,” a high-spirited Steve Allen ditty that was a minor hit for Louis Armstrong, performed with a cheerful playfulness fitting to the holidays. The HCSF then throw a real change-up, launching into “Don Rodolfo,” perhaps the most sophisticated version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” you will hear this season, recast in a romantic Latin mold, slyly blended with the “Habañera” from Bizet’s Carmen.

The HCSF also pays homage to some of the enduringly popular Christmas albums that have become jazz classics in their own right. Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating” theme from the truly beloved A Charlie Brown Christmas special sounds surprisingly compatible with the traditional “Carol of the Bells” in the HCSF’s elegant jazz waltz medley. They also Django-ize “Sugar Rum Cherry,” Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s swinging adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” with bassist Clint Baker’s muted trumpet echoing the tonal colors of the Ellington band on the fade-out.

While there are a couple vocal tracks, Yule is best when the HCSF cuts loose on instrumental swingers, like the snappy “Djingle Bells” (groan). Indeed, the Hot Clubbers exhibit a madcap sense of humor throughout the set, even burying a brief hidden track, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” at the end of “Auld Lang Syne” (which surely Reinhardt himself must have played at some point, given his reputation for enjoying a good party). While technically it might not be a Christmas tune, solo guitarist Paul “Pazzo” Mehling liberally quotes “O Tannenbaum” before they eventually segue into the aforementioned brief but breakneck rendition of “Wish.”

Displaying a zesty flair throughout the program, the HCSF again prove they are one of the best Hot Club inspired combos on the scene today. Yule is another good jazz stocking stuffer or office “Secret Santa” gift. Unapologetically fun, it is easily accessible to general listeners, yet also steeped in the jazz tradition. Happy Thanksgiving.