The blistering fretwork on the opening track of the group's third CD, It's About That Time, pays explicit homage to one of their six-string heroes - just not the one you might think. "On the Steps" is based on the chord changes of Pat Martino's "On the Stairs" (with a brief borrowing from John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" to complete the pun), and states at the outset what fans of these gypsy jazz revisionists have long known - that Django Reinhardt is far from the beginning and end of the Hot Club of Detroit's vocabulary of influences.
"Django Reinhardt is the showerhead from which we all come down," says guitarist and bandleader Evan Perri. "But if he had lived, I don't think he would've been playing the same things he had in prior years. He was constantly evolving as a jazz musician."
The Hot Club of Detroit has undergone a similar evolution since Perri formed the group in 2003 with fellow students at Wayne State University in Detroit. The ensemble rapidly accumulated accolades and audiences over the next several years, including a first-place win in the 2004 Detroit International Jazz Festival competition and multiple Detroit Music Awards. Their 2006 self-titled debut, while slightly more traditional than later releases, established their broad-minded approach to the Django resurgence.
Since that time, it's become increasingly evident that their inspiration comes as much from the spirit of Reinhardt's playing as by its much-copied sound. While they've maintained some recognizable elements - the absence of drums, the percussive "la pompe" rhythm guitar technique - the Motor City quintet apply those elements to a decidedly modern sound, refusing to be constrained by allegiance to some time-honored, purist ideal.
"To me," says rhythm guitarist Paul Brady, "Django Reinhardt was a jazz improviser like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young or any of the other great improvisers of his time. We don't approach our music as a gypsy jazz band, but 100% as a jazz group."
While Hot Club of Detroit salutes the 100th Anniversary of Reinhardt's birth, their approach as a jazz group is nowhere more evident than on the disc's title track, the Joe Zawinul-penned "It's About That Time," famously fused with "In a Silent Way" on Miles Davis' 1969 album. Brady hit upon the idea of fusing the tune instead with Reinhardt's oft-revisited "Heavy Artillerie," creating an atmospheric hybrid with a loping groove and an airy spaciousness.
The ensemble also takes on Charles Mingus' "Nostalgia in Times Square," in 5/4, with bassist Andrew Kratzat providing an appropriately brawny, wood-smacking intro and Carl Cafagna getting the Eric Dolphy tent-revival treatment with a clap-along accompaniment for his tenor solo.
Of course, Reinhardt's catalog is also plumbed for material, but other than the aforementioned "Heavy Artillerie," repertoire was found in its more shadowy, neglected corners. "We try to find Django tunes that haven't been performed to death," Brady says. "He wrote a ton of stuff so we can always find something that we can have fun and stretch out on."
"Duke and Dukie," the first Django credit to appear on this record, perfectly fits that bill, a cheery three-chord romp that serves as a vehicle for lengthy improvisations during the band's live sets. "Sweet Chorus" provides a relaxed finish to the album, easy and intimate as a front porch jam session. The fiery "Noto Swing" is provided by another Reinhardt - Lulu, a mainstay of the German gypsy jazz scene.
On each of its releases the Detroit combo has also flexed its classical muscles, beginning with Nino Rota's theme from "The Godfather" on their debut, followed by Maurice Ravel's "Tzigane" on 2008's Night Town. This time it's Frédéric Chopin's "Tristesse" E Major Etude, which shines a spotlight onto Julien Labro's lush bandoneon and Cafagna's melancholy clarinet.
The remainder of the album consists of originals by the band members themselves: Labro's serpentine, Chick Corea-influenced "Equilibrium;" Cafagna's engaging "Restless Twilights;" "Papillon," a wistful ballad by Labro and Kratzat; Perri's aptly-named "Patio Swing;" Labro's knife-edged waltz "Sacré Bleu;" and Perri's "For Stéphane" - an homage to guitarist Stéphane Wrembel, not the original Hot Club of France violinist.
As wide-ranging as the album is, the one constant is the group's sense of individuality, which Perri says he encourages from each of his band mates.
"There's no point in going out and playing music if you can't be yourself," Perri says. "Sometimes you'll hear a Wes Montgomery riff in my playing, or you might hear an Eddie Van Halen riff or a Led Zeppelin influence, because that's who I am and for me to deny that wouldn't be true to my musicianship."