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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999: 

The Hot Club Of Cowtown, Tall Tales (Hightone)

The recent "swing revival" actually features a number of revivalists and a few revisionists. (As for the latter category, an outfit like the Squirrel Nut Zippers springs to mind.) Often, mere revivalism embodies all of the innovation and verve of a big, showy coffee table book dedicated to the thoroughly exhausted subject of French Impressionism. Which sounds like a snide way of putting down revivalism and coffee table books and even, perhaps, French Impressionism. But, as a matter of fact, I have a soft spot in my heart for all three.

The Austin, Texas-based acoustic trio The Hot Club of Cowtown fits into the "revivalist" category like a lovingly crafted fiddle fits into a velvet-lined custom-built case, and their new Hightone release fits nicely into my CD collection. While Tall Tales doesn't offer up much in the way of new wrinkles, the album most definitely boasts some damned good playing and entertainingly colorful vocals from Whit Smith (guitar), Elana Fremerman (violin), and Billy Horton (upright bass).

As you've probably guessed, The Hot Club of Cowtown is mostly about Western Swing, though Tall Tales also displays the band's knowing way with Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli "Hot Club Of France"-style jazz (a genre closely allied with Western Swing, after all). The trio also trots out a bit of Tin Pan Alley from time to time, with "Always and Always" and "There'll Be Some Changes Made" weighing in as the coolest of those tracks, retro-wise.

The Hot Club also decided to include four original tunes on Tall Tales, and did so with all due consideration. "We wanted those songs to blend with the music we play, as though we were contemporaries with writers from the '30s and the '40s," states Whit Smith. "At the same time, we didn't want to add any outside influences like rock, or to come off as being campy. We wanted to be true to the music and to ourselves." These goals, I'm happy to report, have been met with style and grace. None of the Hot Club originals interrupt Tall Tales' stylistic flow and, indeed, measure up well to the daunting standards of the "standards." For my money, the best of these is Elana Fremerman's "Darling You and I Are Through," an effervescent missive to a neglectful former lover, informing him of a hit-parade of wonderful qualities found in her new beau. This song is one of the sweetest/cutest invitations to go to hell that I've ever heard.

Production values: Smith, Fremerman, and Horton busted collective butt to record with just the right vintage equipment (particularly old tube microphones) within a room (studio) conducive to their purpose, and it shows.

They don't call 'em "Hot" for nothing. As Smith sings on "Red Hot Mama," this CD could well make " Paganini toss away his fiddle, make a bald-headed man part his hair in the middle." -- Stephen Grimstead


Vibes, With Drawn, (Knitting Factory)

Vibes is the trio of vibraphonist Bill Ware (of Jazz Passengers and Groove Collective fame), bassist Brad Jones (a cohort of Ornette Coleman and Muhal Richard Abrams), and drummer E.J. Rodriquez (another Jazz Passenger). Two years ago they released their eponymous debut CD, an explosive live offering that revealed this outfit as a power trio of sorts, laying down a set of funky, molten-metal original fare that screamed out of the speakers -- material so dense and intense you had to remind yourself it was acoustic jazz.

This sophomore disc is a studio effort, and while it lacks the intensity of their earlier disc, it more than makes up for it in creativity, great chops, and stellar group interplay. Rather than bowling you over as they did so successfully last time around, this time they rely on finesse, inventive arrangements, and a masterful delivery of music across a wide variety of moods and grooves.

The original material is uniformly strong. On tunes like "Cruel To Me," the band intertwines the bass and drums into a pulsing rhythmic groove, while the vibes dance in and out of the beat. "Down Under" is a softer study that recalls a rumbling, crashing surf. Other originals quiet things a bit, hinting at the delicate trio interplay of Bill Evans' work. The covers feature refreshing arrangements, including a version of "House of the Rising Sun," with effects-drenched vibes providing a Gothic air, while "Making Whoopee" presents the melody over a bass line straight from Miles Davis' "All Blues." -- Gene Hyde


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