By Dave McIntyre, Bluesologist
The band Espresso! is a joy to listen to, and I have been a big fan of theirs for years. They merge two musical traditions: red-hot Gypsy jazz and sweet American swing tunes. Gypsy jazz is also known as gypsy swing, or hot club jazz, and is a style of jazz generally accepted to have started by the Belgian-born,
Romani-French guitarist Jean “Django” Reinhardt in Paris during the 1930’s. American Swing music, or simply swing, is a form of popular music developed in the United States that dominated in the 1930s and 1940s.
The name swing came from the “swing feel” where the emphasis is on the off–beat or weaker pulse in the music. Swing is sandwiched between two huge historical events. The Great Depression, which started with the stock market crash in 1929 and WWII, which ended in 1945. The Swing Era was during the Great Depression, and it acted as a kind of counter-statement or rebellion against the unemployment and misery that the Depression caused. It served to distract people from the daily grind of reality.
Sound familiar? This music should make you feel good, and it sure does me. All acoustic instruments make up this sound, and never assault your ears with electricity and loud music. The sound is very pleasant to listen to.
The five musicians of Espresso! are all virtuosos on their instruments and work incredibly well together. Let’s start with band leader and incredible rhythm guitarist Emily Reynolds who sings so sweetly in English and French, and plays up and down the neck where rhythm is so essential to this swing music. She sets a strong rhythmic tone. Bill Pontarelli is a super star on the clarinet, and he sings the old hokum style with great panache. His red-hot phrasing and ability to make everyone around him sound better is evident especially when he and Jordan trade riffs. Which brings me to National Mandolin player extraordinaire Jordan Ramsey who is by far the best I have ever heard on this instrument. Whether its slow and melodic, or breakneck speed riffs, he is incredible and so so tasty with his playing. Alexios Anest, on lead guitar, studied at Berklee College of music. His blistering leads are characterized by fast stunning notes. Duane Webster is a staple on the bass in Colorado. I have known him longer then any of the others, as he was the bass player for Boulder’s iconic Ophelia Swing Band in the mid to late seventies, which remains one of my favorite bands from that era.
“Black and White,” their latest CD, was recorded live in the TTFN (Ta-Ta for Now) Hotel’s lobby by Andrew Lunsford, which is actually Emily’s living room. Picking a favorite tune or tunes on this CD is very difficult as I like them all. But, as for Gypsy swing, the opening track and CD title by Django Reinhardt is a standout. As is Django’s Waltz, and his version of Stompin’ at Decca with the famous Stephane Grappelli, his long- time partner, is great. Emily sings expressively and wonderfully on a Sidney Bechet tune, and also on I Will Wait for You. There is a haunting Bossa Nova where the interplay of the clarinet and mandolin are heavenly. As far as American standards Eubie Blake’s Memories of You, Sweet Pea, and Mr. Sandman stick out. The Hokum sounds (my definition) that Bill sings and plays that wonderful clarinet; there’s King Oliver’s Dr. Jazz, Hit that Jive (with great ensemble singing) and Hoagy Carmichael’s Lazy Bones. Jordan ends this recording with some first-rate mandolin and singing complete with some very appropriate scat singing in the jaunty, Then I’ll be Happy.
Swing music fans need to have this work in their collection, and should consider hearing this band live. They are hot!!