Burning Down the House

Hot Club of Buffalo proves that yes, new is sometimes better

By Jan Jezioro

The Hot Club of Buffalo will host a party celebrating the release of their first CD at 7:30pm on Friday April 21 at 710 Main Street in Shea’s Smith Theatre. Question: What, exactly, is The Hot Club of Buffalo? Answer: Babik’s gypsy jazz swing band’s successor, which has been able to take its playing to another level. But, you might well ask, how come these guys are not better known?

A few weeks ago, Kelley Bucheger, an adjunct faculty member of Villa Maria College, and the hardest bopping alto saxophonist in the area, hosted The Hot Club of Buffalo for one of his Tuesday lunchtime concerts at the College. Josh Assad, the group’s front man, vocalist and rhythm guitarist did a wonderful job of explaining gypsy jazz swing music. Coincidentally, just a couple of days later, The Hot Club made its Pausa Art House debut, and yes, they burned the house down.

“The origin of gypsy swing can be traced to one musician, Django Reinhardt who grew up in a gypsy camp outside of Paris”, says the band’s rock solid string bass player, Kevin O’Brien. “He was given a banjo—he later switched to guitar— at an early age and showed remarkable abilities. As a teenager, he played in noisy Parisian dance halls, most often with an accordion player. There was no amplification at that time, so Django developed techniques to be heard above the din. This is an important part of gypsy swing— the guitars are acoustic and loud. Tragedy struck when, returning from a gig late at night, Django knocked over a candle and his caravan caught fire. He was severely burned and he lost the use of his pinky and ring finger. Instead of giving up, Django developed revolutionary techniques that allowed him to play faster than most 5-fingered guitarists. He met the great French violinist, Stephane Grappelli, in the early 1930’s and The Quintet of the Hot Club of France was born. The band created a sensation by blending American big band swing with the exotic tones of Django’s gypsy guitar”.

Kevin O’Brien answered some questions that many have people have had about Babik. “Josh Assad and Stu Fuchs started Babik in the winter of 2004”, says Kevin. “At first it was a trio with Leif Nicklas on bass, then Leif departed to play on cruise ships. Geoff Perry and I joined the band in the summer of 2005 and the lineup was complete. The band ended in 2012, so we had a nice 7-year run. Being in a band is like being in a relationship. When it’s over you feel it in your gut. I think we all felt it”.

“As the wheels were falling off Babik, Josh and I talked about what we would do next. We agreed that we wanted to continue to play this music together and that we’d prefer to play at events close to home. We were ridiculously lucky to have two exceptional musicians, E.J. Koeppel and Dean Gionis, available to perform in this style. Josh and I had always loved E.J. He performed on Babik gigs whenever Geoff wasn’t available, and he always knocked it out of the park. Dean was the lead guitarist in Djambossa, a group that mixed gypsy swing with bossa nova. He’s a fantastic musician and he was always on our radar, so the making of The Hot Club was easy”.

One of the most intriguing features of the Hot Club performances are the original compositions by lead guitarist Dean Gionis, who talks about his music: “I’ve been influenced by the music of the Mediterranean as far back as I can remember. I heard a ton of Greek music growing up as my parents were from Greece. The folk music of Spain, Italy, France and Greece are very like me in that they have a very emotional component to them. I started playing guitar as a teenager and started writing music immediately. In the last 10 years, I have been most influenced by guys like Ottmar Liebert, Oscar Lopez, and Armik on the Latin side and gypsy jazz greats like Bireli Lagrene and Stochelo Rosenberg. From 1998-2006, I wrote and recorded three records with the alternative rock band Nancyscandy. After many years on the rock music scene I formed the group Djambossa that ran from 2007-2013. That is when I started performing all the cool music that I always loved and continue today as a member of The Hot Club of Buffalo”. Two of Dean’s works are featured on the group’s new CD, including ‘About 4am Bossa’, about which Dean says “I think about song melodies a lot, actually every day. Sometimes you piece together parts of a melody and it comes together later. When it does, it’s like a bullhorn sounds off in your mind. The story of this song is that I woke up abruptly one day (at 4:00 am) and this melody was in my head. I got up and had to grab a guitar immediately to get the melody recorded to make sure that I didn’t lose any of it. The style is Gypsy Bossa and it happened at 4am, so my title”.

EJ Koepell, the group’s smoking, classically trained violinist talked about his route to gypsy-jazz.  “I’ve always been interested in different styles of music, says EJ. “My father taught me folk music from all over the world, and Matthew Tworek, a member of the first violin section of the BPO for over 50 years helped me build technique through classical music training along with throwing in jazzier pieces like ‘The Hot Canary’”.

“I discovered fusion when I first learned about Jean-Luc Ponty and I’d play along with his albums trying to figure a few things out. I hooked up with a new acoustic band, The Norris quartet, which gave me the opportunity to experiment and expand my understanding of improvisation. Soon after, I met my idol Stephane Grappelli, and I began listening and dissecting his music along with incorporating my own personality and training to develop my own style. Most importantly, I feel so fortunate to be a member of The Hot Club of Buffalo. These guys are so devoted and talented. We encourage each other to take it to the edge. Experiment, don’t hold back and see what comes of it. When you have that kind of musical freedom, you can really grow as a musician”.

Suggested donation: $10. Doors open at 6:30pm, with music featuring special guest artists at 7:30pm.