Occidental Gypsy is a band that combines the ‘Gypsy Swing’ feel of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli with a range of material from other sources, notably the compositions of lead guitarist Brett Lee Feldman. Their CD 44070 (due for release in the UK on July 3rd 2017) includes three songs already associated with Reinhardt and Grappelli, one song by Scottie Kulman, and five compositions by Feldman. The other band members are Eli Bishop (strings, background vocals, and rhythm guitar on ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’); Jeremy Frantz (lead vocals, guitar); Jeff “JPhat” Feldman (bass); and Jon Chapman on percussion. The band is augmented here on some tracks by Evan Veenstra (bass) and Erick Cifuentes (percussion).
- ‘Gypsy Blues (She’s Back)’ was written by Scottie Kulman. I can’t altogether like the lyric or the vocal phrasing, but it’s very cleverly arranged, with ear-catching unison playing between guitar and violin in the vocal sections.
- The instrumental ‘A Day With Paula May’ was composed by Brett Lee Feldman, but has a very Hot Club feel with the composer in full-on Django mode in places. It features some interesting changes of mood and time signature.
- ‘Messalina (Lover Lamb)’ is another composition by Feldman. A very nice melody with changes reminiscent of 50s-60s guitar-oriented cool jazz. It also features some athletic bass soloing and nicely understated percussion (including a sample of Eli Bishop’s record-breaking clapping) over a riffing section. My favourite track.
- ‘44070: Song for Vrba’ is yet another Feldman composition. It’s a complex instrumental piece that “celebrates the story of Rudolph Vrba“. After his escape from Auschwitz in 1944, Vrba co-authored a report on the mass murders there that is credited with saving the lives of 200,000 people who would otherwise have been deported (like so many others) from Hungary. The piece has several distinct sections with echoes of Bach, Eastern Europe and even a phrase that reminded me of Dowland’s ‘Melancholy Galliard’, though I think that was probably accidental. An impressive composition and recording.
- ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ was composed by Isham Jones (with words by Gus Kahn, though this version is purely instrumental). The song was also recorded by Django Reinhardt with the Quintette du Hot Club de France, and this version is obviously heavily influenced by the Hot Club recordings in its choice of tempo and guitar phrasing.
- The next track, ‘Tears’, was actually composed by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, and is a live studio recording. While the guitar is as strongly Django-influenced here as you’d expect, this version is by no means a straight copy, not least in that the violin is far more prominent than on the best-known Hot Club recording, and the track features some nice harmonic interplay between Feldman’s guitar and Bishop’s violin. The track also includes some nicely understated pizzicato.
- ‘Tonight’ is another composition by Brett Lee Feldman. A somewhat jokey song with a quasi-blues verse structure and nice interplay between the violin, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar. There’s also more of Eli Bishop’s intelligent use of pizzicato.
- ‘Children’s March’ is also by Feldman, and described as “an apology to the children harmed during the de-segregationists march that took place in Birmingham, 1963.” That’s Birmingham, Alabama, of course, where firehoses and police dogs are said to have been used against children taking part in the ‘Children’s Crusade’. Tuned percussion at the beginning gives a suggestion of the nursery, moving into a stately duet between the violin and acoustic guitar, which is less Django-esque than elsewhere on the album.
- ‘Over The Rainbow’ was composed by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, and was also recorded by Reinhardt and Grappelli. However, this version is more reflective and truer to the song’s movie origins, with a simple guitar and violin arrangement. It is, I guess, hard to take this approach without overdoing the schmaltz, and I can’t altogether like the touches of portamento and harmonics on the violin. There are some good moments here, but for me this is the weakest track on the CD.
If you don’t care for Gypsy Jazz with a strong dash of the Hot Club of France, this may leave you cold, though there’s a lot more to it than pastiche. In fact the use of electric guitar, bass guitar and upfront percussion takes the sound a good way beyond the ‘classic’ Hot Club sound. Certainly I look forward to seeing/hearing where Brett Lee Feldman’s eclectic compositions take them next.
Artists’ website: www.occidentalgypsy.com
‘A Day With Paula May’ – live: