The "hot club" phrase is a talisman in the jazz world. The Hot Club of Cowtown, the Hot Club of San Francisco and Seattle's Hot Club Sandwich -- just to name a few clubs -- play around the United States, while Kings Cross Hot Club and Hot Club de Norvège are but two of the European counterparts. Similarly, there are hot clubs around the world for hot clubs to perform in, including Montreal's Hot Club de Ma Rue, Hot Club of Portugal, and the home of all things "hot," the Hot Club of France.
The famed Parisian nightclub was the home of "hot" jazz throughout the 1930s, and the band most associated with it was the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. Led by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli, the quintet's swinging, acoustic, string-based jazz has come to be thought of as the "hot club" sound.
New Orleans' leading practitioner, the Hot Club of New Orleans, solidified its lineup in 2001, but had begun about a year earlier from humble, somewhat domestic, origins. "It started gradually, goofing around in the kitchen probably because the violin player, Matt Rhody, and one of the original guitar players who's no longer with the band, Matt Johnson, they just wanted to play some Django stuff," says Christopher Kohl, the clarinet player for Hot Club of New Orleans (HCNO). Talking over coffee on a wintry afternoon, he says, "I wasn't familiar with Django, but I checked out some of the records and thought, Cool, they don't have a drummer. They've got a clarinet player often. And that gypsy sound is really happening,' so those guys introduced me to it."
The current lineup includes Rhody, Kohl, guitarists Todd Duke and David Mooney, and bassists Peter Harris, Matt Perrine and Adam Booker, depending on who among the latter group is available. All are veterans of jazz gigs around town and knew each other before forming the band.
"I've been playing with Todd Duke and guitar players for a long time, and I think clarinets and guitars sound beautiful together," Kohl says. "Violin and guitar go great, and clarinet and violin go great. To me, aesthetically, it was just a great match-up of timbres and sonic qualities."
The band's new self-released album, More!, features Django Reinhardt's "Minor Swing," a composition featuring Rhody and guitarist David Mooney. That and Kohl's "Natchitoches Noisette" are the truest examples of the "hot club" sound on the album.
"The first few months we were playing, that's what we were going for," Kohl says. "We loved it, but Django died a long time ago, and he never got to hear Stevie Wonder, and he never got to hear Steely Dan. He never came to New Orleans.
"All of us have grown up since the '70s," he continues. "It's in you. You play what you are."
As a result, the band's influences also include the likes of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Barney Bigard and Duke Ellington (the band recorded three of the Duke's songs for More!) as well as Queensryche, Led Zeppelin and George Benson. "If we were strictly playing Django stuff, we would be purposefully, forcefully doing museum-type stuff. We could do a show of strictly Django stuff, but why?"
Little of the album exactly follows the model of Reinhardt's quintet. Mooney's "Stutter Step," for example, sounds the album's most progressive note with a slightly dissonant, modern blues, while much of the album mines the catalogue of swinging jazz standards from the 1940s and '50s Their versions of standards are often similarly personalized.
"It varies from tune to tune," Kohl says. "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön'on the record is a very simple, old trad tune, but we decided on the spot in the studio to play it with a 6/8, pseudo-Afro-Cuban vibe on the head in and head out. Then we switched up the melody so that it would fit 6/8, so it's a triplet feel instead of being in four. Then on the solos, it goes back to swinging in four."
The spirit may not be as reverential as disciples of the hot club sound might like, but the HCNO is in no danger of being mistaken for Sun Ra or Art Ensemble of Chicago. The version of Ellington's "Azalea," for example, is simply lovely, and the arrangement and solos are sympathetic to that core prettiness.
"There's no secret to the song," Kohl says. "The A section has a floating upward then returning wave. It starts on an F major and goes up to A flat, then comes back down. Then right at the end when it goes up, it hangs there for a second, then it makes a regular cadence down. On the bridge, there's just a little vamp between I and V, I and V and then it goes up -- man, it's so simple!
"I think the lyrics are so pretty. It has killer little rhymes in it, like, You're at ease on the knees of the moss-covered trees.' The metaphors, comparing cypress swamps to a cathedral -- I don't want to wax philosophical, but it's really lush. "Maybe it's a misnomer to call us the Hot Club of New Orleans," Kohl says.