The dance floor doesn’t lie. When the band finds the sweet spot and the couples bounce in time with the rhythm section Rob Reich knows the gig is going well. The Oakland pianist leads one of the Bay Area’s most exciting swing bands, a group steeped in (but not defined by) the sound that kept America dancing through the Great Depression and World War II. He celebrates the release of his new album of original compositions, Swings Left, Saturday at Ashkenaz.
The new music grew out of a steady stream of gigs playing for Bay Area swing dancers. At first the band played Reich’s transcriptions of pieces made famous by Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington and Count Basie “and as we were doing it I started to hear places where I could find music that wasn’t there yet,” says Reich, who contributed several gorgeous compositions to the final incarnation of the beloved Bay Area ensemble Tin Hat.
“When I first started playing these dances I figured I should learn all the old tunes,” he continues. “There’s so much there. It was only after getting deeper into it that I could find a voice of my own. Playing for dancers is so inspiring. It’s so immediate. You see this tempo works, or this feeling really gets the dancers going. All the tunes I wrote hopefully inspire people to dance,” though he notes the six-piece group also plays a sit-down concert at San Francisco’s Bird and Beckett Books and Records Feb. 1, an unusual setting for the band. But as Reich notes, “I love listening to it and I don’t dance.”
Swings Left features the expert rhythm section tandem of supremely versatile bassist Daniel Fabricant and drummer Elizabeth Goodfellow, a well-traveled player who now based in Los Angeles who’s been touring the world with the folk-tinged singer/songwriter Iron & Wine. “She’s a wonderfully sensitive musician who always plays exactly what I want to hear,” Reich says. “She’s the first person I call in any context, but especially with that swing stuff. Really brings attention to details and has her own weird language she injects. She and Daniel have a really strong rhythm section sound.”
The horns feature rising young trumpeter Andrew Stephens and Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg, a player far better known for his singular blend of experimental jazz, roots and chamber music than for small group swing. Like Reich, he was a latter-day member of Tin Hat, and contributed to Shadowbox, Reich’s gorgeous 2015 album of original tunes (which came out on Goldberg’s label BAG Records). Part of the fun of Swing Left flows from hearing Goldberg interpret parts inspired by the clarinet’s central role in the era’s great jazz orchestras.
“I tried to include some of those classic clarinet moments,” Reich says. “On the tune ‘Viper’s Nightmare’ there’s a part inspired by the famous solo on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ with just floor tom and solo clarinet. On ‘The Vision,’ another tune that features Ben, I was thinking of Barney Bigard and all his beautiful work with Duke Ellington.”
Like the great Freddie Green in the Count Basie Orchestra’s All-American Rhythm Section, guitarist Craig Ventresco provides the steady pulse on which Swings Left pivots. Known for his mastery of ragtime and early jazz idioms, Ventresco keeps the train running no matter what detours the horn players take.
“The thing that I love about swing music of that time, there’s these contrasts, the steady rolling rhythm section that plays it straight hitting every beat, while the horns are riffing and going all over,” Reich says. “Ben and Andrew are steeped in that stuff but take flight in more experimental and adventurous ways. It’s exciting to have the old and the new butting heads, ride that line, steeped in the past and presenting something that’s informed by more modern music.”
Reich knows all about how to honor and subvert traditional forms, a tightrope he walks metaphorically as the leader of the Circus Bella All-Stars. Over the past decade he’s written music for the popular Circus Bella, which recently finished its most ambitious production ever, Kaleidoscope, under the big top on Treasure Island.
He’s heading into the studio to record expanded versions of the circus music next month, with several pieces that started Swings Left numbers “and ended up in Circus Bella, like ‘How to Be a Weirdo,’ ‘Shimmytown Shuffle,’ and ‘What’s Left,’ which were perfect for the acts in the circus. But in the circus we turn the contrasts up even more. The rhythm section is doing its own expressive thing, something wackier that doesn’t have much to do with swing. In swing music there’s such exuberance and such restraint.”
Django Reinhardt Birthday Festival at the Freight & Salvage
Reimagining swing era forms is what Freight & Salvage’s Django Reinhardt Birthday Festival is all about. Running Friday through Sunday with multi-act programs, the festival makes a compelling case for the extraordinary malleability of the Hot Club sound introduced in mid-1930s Paris by Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and French violinist Stephane Grappelli. Friday’s program features the Hot Club Of San Francisco, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary as a leading force in the Gypsy swing revival, and the French sibling duo of Boulou and Elios Ferré, the sons of the great Gypsy guitarist Matelo Ferret (a close associate of Reinhardt’s). The East Bay flamenco-meets-Hot-Club combo Barrio Manouche, which released a stellar debut album last year, Aires de Cambio, rounds out the triple bill.
Saturday’s program offers the widest angle view of Hot Club evolution. Karachi-born Rez Abbasi is one of jazz’s most inventive guitarists as both the leader of his own projects and as a key collaborator with alto saxophone star Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition. Playing fretted and fretless acoustic guitars, Abbasi introduces his Gypsy jazz-inspired power trio with drummer Michael Sarin and Neil Alexander on organ and electronics. The program also features LA-meets-Bay Area Gypsy Chix with French vocalist/guitarist Isabelle Fontaine (a longtime member of the the Hot Club of San Francisco), French washboardist Catherine “Cajounne” Girard, bassist Katie Cavera and fiddler Hanna Mignano. Rounding out the triple bill is the blazing Rhythm Future Quartet, which is co-led by violinist Jason Anick and guitarist Olli Soikkeli.
The festival closes Sunday with a guitarcentric double bill. The headliner is guitar maestro John Jorgenson, who spent years working with the likes of Elton John, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan before returning to his first musical love, Gypsy jazz. His quintet with violinist Casey Driscoll, bassist Simon Planting, percussionist Rick Reed, and Rory Hoffman on rhythm guitar, piano, and accordion is joined by special guest Martin Taylor, the British-born master who spent more than a decade touring and recording with Stephane Grappelli. Le Jazz Hot, a condensed version of guitarist Paul Mehling’s Hot Club of San Francisco, rounds out the program.