Band of gypsies

On a recent Saturday afternoon, guitarist Evan Perri rested on a sectional sofa that consumed most of his bachelor pad in Grosse Pointe Park. Perri fiddled with the strings on his new acoustic guitar while discussing his fascination with the late Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, and the popularity of the Hot Club of Detroit, the Gypsy jazz quintet Perri formed in 2003. The group is named after the Quintette du Hot Club de France of the 1930s, in which violinist Stephane Grappelli and the Gypsy Reinhardt pioneered what's been dubbed Gypsy jazz.

Perri's upstairs flat, which he jokingly refers to as his "man-cave," is decorated like a frat house. Posters cover the walls, and there are two Django Reinhardt album covers. There's that huge color TV and the oversized coffee table. Perri even resembles a fraternity dude. That day he wore a black baseball cap turned backward, boot-cut jeans, a black T-shirt and a green warm-up jacket with a yellow stripe on its sleeves. But the three acoustic guitar cases stacked in the corner aren't your typical frat house accoutrements.

The former Wayne State University student recalled getting encouragement from pianist Matt Michaels, a frequent performer around town and then a faculty member: "I told him I was really into Gypsy jazz, and I wanted to start a band. He thought it was the greatest idea in the world. He said that I need to keep that music going because there was nobody in Detroit doing it."

Initially, Perri had a hard time finding musicians. He searched for months. Then he finally handpicked what he considered the three best guitarists at Wayne State University. He taught the musicians everything he knew about Reinhardt's music. They rehearsed daily, booked mostly nonpaying gigs at coffee shops near campus, and played combo recitals. Michaels hired them as an opening act. In 2004, the Hot Club of Detroit got a big break.

The quintet won the Heineken Jazz Quest, a talent-search contest that runs in conjunction with the Detroit International Jazz Festival. The prize was a spot at the festival. Months later, Perri signed a five-album deal with Mack Avenue Records. The same year, the record company released the Hot Club of Detroit's self-titled debut album, which became one of the record company's best selling albums. Their new album is selling even better.

Fast forward to October of this year, when the Hot Club of Detroit released Night Town, its sophomore album, on which the band sounds more self-assured and polished than before. The disc sounds as if Django Reinhardt were in the studio coaching the band. The Gypsy swinger's spirit seemed to have graced each member's instrument, particularly on "Speevy," "Django's Monkey" and "Blues Up and Down." Perri, saxophonist Carl Cafagna, bassist Shannon Wade, accordionist Julien Labro and guitarist Paul Brady, the current lineup, have modernized Reinhardt's music.

"We try to put the Hot Club of Detroit stamp on Django's music. I always try to have our own arrangements and make it unique because we have different instrumentation with the addition of the accordion and the tenor saxophonist. So we have a real modern approach to this music," Perri said.

The original Hot Club, formed in 1934, was an all-strings outfit: just three guitars, violin and bass. It's not just the different instrumentation that gives this Hot Club an original sound. Perri's quintet has the hard-bop edginess of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers zooming through the changes of "Honeysuckle Rose," a tune that Reinhardt immortalized.

Perri grew up in Grosse Pointe Woods. He played the upright bass, then, at Grosse Pointe North High School, he switched to the electric guitar. Perri's dad, Andrew, worked for a company that installed and repaired hospital equipment, and moonlighted as a jazz musician. He led a band called Parade, and for years played with the Sun Messengers. Dad wanted Perri to stick with the bass.

"My father told me not to be a guitar player. He said I could get steady work around Detroit if I played the bass. I held off for as long as I could. I just had to get a guitar. My dad finally realized that. One Christmas when I woke up there was a shiny black guitar under the Christmas tree," Perri said.

As a teenager, Perri listened to legendary rock bands from Led Zeppelin to the Grateful Dead. Perri says he got into Gypsy jazz music while a student at Berklee College of Music. One day, Perri went to a record store. He saw a Django Reinhardt greatest hits album in a bargain bin for three bucks. Call it the investment of a lifetime.

"At that point I was at a crossroad. I had played so many styles of music, I was kind of searching for a new voice, something that spoke to me a little more than what I had been doing," Perri recalled.

That Reinhardt compilation changed Perri. He immersed myself into Reinhardt's music, saved up his money, and purchased a Gypsy-style guitar. Then Perri began transcribing Reinhardt's music.

In addition to Berklee, Perri studied at Smith McNally School of Music (St. Paul, Minn.), Western Michigan University and Wayne State University, before dropping out in his junior year to push the Hot Club full time.

The band's route from festival gig to recording contract shows how they've been able to impress folks. Bob McCabe, the founder of Detroit's annual jazz fest and a perennial festival presence, became a fan after hearing the quintet there in 2004. Perri says McCabe started showing up at the Hot Club's gigs, and raving about the band to Gretchen Valade, the festival's prime benefactor in recent years and the owner of Mack Avenue Records.

Before long, Perri got a call from Al Pryor, longtime jazz industry heavy and now the president of A&R for Mack Avenue.

"He said he really wanted to hear us," recalled Perri. "We played at an event they hosted at a restaurant in Harmonie Park. Little did I know it was an audition. So, we got up there and did our thing. It was great. At the end of the night, Al sat me down. He said this was the easiest decision he had to make in his life. He said, 'Let's make a deal.' I said, 'Fuck yeah!'"

The Hot Club of Detroit's self-titled debut album was a hit, in the jazz sense of the word, at least. "We got tons of radio play. I have friends all over the country who call me up to tell me they heard us on the radio."

Around the same time, the band caught the attention of an influential fellow Detroiter, saxophonist James Carter. A Reinhardt enthusiast himself, back in 1999 Carter had released an album of mostly Reinhardt material titled Chasin' the Gypsy. Carter has also played at various Reinhardt festivals and has performed with authentic Gypsy musicians.

Asked how the Hot Club of Detroit measures up to other Gypsy jazz bands, Carter said, "That is a heck of a question to answer. I think the Hot Club of Detroit plays with such reverence and passion. They play with a different level of conviction."

This weekend, Carter joins the Hot Club of Detroit to play their third annual collaborative weekend at Cliff Bell's in downtown Detroit. The concerts are popular.

"Playing with them gives me a chance to extend my understanding of Django's repertoire," Carter said. Perri said that sharing the stage with the saxophonist is beyond comparison.

In just five years, the Hot Club of Detroit has won many Detroit Music awards, and gained popularity outside of Detroit, but Perri refuses to rest on the Hot Club's accomplishments. He wants the quintet to continue to grow, to tour internationally, and to avoid being typecast as just another Gypsy jazz band.

"I want every member to be involved with the writing, and every member to bring new tunes to the table so we can really retain the Hot Club sound — because a lot of the Hot Club bands around today, I won't mention any names, all sound alike. I love the purists and the traditionalists, but I think if Reinhardt were around here today, he would not be playing the same shit he was playing in the '30's," Perri said.

Hot Club of Detroit featuring James Carter performs Friday and Saturday, Dec. 19-20, at Cliff Bell's, 2030 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-961-2543.

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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