A couple of years ago I reviewed What Makes Bob Holler by Hot Club of Cowtown. It was an album of modernized western swing with a little jazz thrown in for good measure that paid homage to country artist Bob Wills. When their new album, Rendezvous in Rhythm arrived in my mail box, I expected a similar sound. Much to my surprise, they traveled in a different direction.
Hot Club came into existence when fiddle player/vocalist Elana James placed an ad in a local newspaper looking for a band. She didn’t join a band but did find guitarist/vocalist Whit Smith and so a band was born. Bassist Jake Irwin made three and their line-up was complete. Since their formation they have toured with the likes of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Their 13th album will be released May 28.
Rendezvous in Rhythm is an ambitious affair that finds the band leaving their western swing roots behind and exploring new sounds. They tend to rotate traditional songs from the Great American Songbook (sung by Smith) and Gypsy jazz material (sung by James). The acoustic music channels artists such as violin and guitar masters Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt.
The lead track establishes the fact that they have moved in a new direction. “Ochi Chorne,” also known as “Dark Eyes,” is a Russian folk song, which is presented in a classical format. Combined with their other instrumentals, “Minor Swing” and “Douce Ambiance,” the tone, energy, and instrumental virtuosity is in place for the rest of the album.
The tracks tend to meander along. There is the beauty of Smith’s vocal on “I’m in the Mood for Love” and the sass of James on “Crazy Rhythm.” Throw in the Billie Holliday tune “Back in My Own Backyard,” Al Jolson’s “Avalon,” the classic “Slow Boat to China,” and the gentle “If I Had You” and you have an album that grabs your attention.
Hot Club of Cowtown has issued an entertaining album that shows off their versatility and growth as a band. They have moved from the smoky clubs of the West to the dimly lit bistros of pre-World War II Paris, and it’s worth accompanying them on their journey.