The French took on American jazz in the early 1930s as they have taken on everything else – with style, flair, wit and that undefinable thing, charm. It was only logical that the predominant home-grown style would come to be Gypsy Jazz – a typically French bouillabaisse cooked up from flavours of US swing jazz, Paris ‘musette’ and gypsy folk – served hot, with a wink and a smile.
The towering figure of Gypsy (or ‘Manouche’) Jazz was the unschooled guitar genius, Django Reinhardt, a true gypsy who, with his brother (and later violinist Stephane Grappelli) formed the famous and enduring ‘Quintette du Hot Club de France’.
Sydney’s Spyglass Gypsies have taken this model, in the main, as the inspiration behind their original take on Manouche Jazz. Built around the propulsive ‘la pompe’ percussive style of Richard Ashby’s guitar (a model custom built just for this style) the four-piece brings gypsy jazz up to date – without spilling a drop of the music’s inherent charm.
The drummer-less group also features Loretta Palmeiro on clarinet and alto sax, Shannon Haritos on acoustic bass and Andrew Scott on accordian – the latter an instrument, like the sitar or a Miles-muted trumpet, that can really take one away to another place and time (‘Another absinthe, Henri?’…).
The upstairs room at Newtown’s tiny but bustling Corridor could not have suited the Gypsies’ ambience better. As the band swung through Django’s ‘Swing ‘42’ and Martin Taylor’s ‘Musette for a Magpie’, the burnished, rounded tones of Palmeiro’s alto sax filled the room and reminded me of an alto tone that is rarely heard these days. The last time I saw Palmeiro play was out front of the fiery Sirens Big Band, shooting bebop sparks, but tonight her tone was supple, sweet and woody. Scott’s accordian, sparkling in the solos, could also produce a remarkably orchestral fullness on pieces such as the Ashby original ‘Lafayette’. Haritos’ bass was typically strong throughout, covering rhythmically during Ashby’s single-note forays, and soloing with style and real verve over the Autumn Leaves-like cycle of Stochelo Rosenberg’s ‘For Sephora’.
The Spyglass Gypsies’ set is made up largely of the classic Manouche repetoire – and how could you not play the Django classics such as ‘Nuages’ or ‘Belleville’ (with its remarkably modern chromatic sequences)? – and yet the band has fun with the form too. A slice of the Gerry Mulligan cool classic ‘Bernie’s Tune’ is injected into Romane’s ‘Gypsy Fire’ and the band take Bobby Hebb’s ‘Sunny’ downtown (French Funk, anyone?). Britney Spears’ ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ even makes a (gypsyfied) appearance – I (and everyone in the room by the indication of applause) loved it and was sure Django would have, too.
I for one, cannot wait to hear the Spyglass Gypsies again – especially in warmer weather. This light, passionate music would suit a summer’s Sydney day, with a glass of good white and a harbour breeze, like no other. The French phrase ‘joie de vivre’ – literally ‘joy of living’ – is all over this music, infectious and grin-inducing. To quote one of the best tunes of the night – ‘C’est Si Bon’.