PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
January 31, 2006

Surrealistic Gypsies

by Jim Newsom

Over the course of the last decade or so, there’s been a literal explosion of bands playing acoustic jazz in the style of Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grapelli and their Quintet of the Hot Club of France from the 1930s. Most major cities and a lot of minor ones have their own “gypsy jazz” ensemble. While some have names like Pearl Django, Djunkyard Gypsies, Django Djazz and Richmond’s Gypsy Roots, most incorporate “Hot Club” into their moniker.

One of the best of the lot is a pioneering group of the new era, the Hot Club of San Francisco, led by guitarist Paul “Pazzo” Mehling. The fivesome returns to the American Theatre Friday night, this time to accompany a set of silent films in a program called “Silent Surrealism.”

When we talked by phone recently, I asked Mehling what that meant.

“I have this friend who put together the San Francisco Silent Film Festival,” he said, “and I was always hitting on him to be a part of the festival because they were always playing music to go with the films. Long story short, he said, ‘Here’s a bunch of films. Look at them and see if you can pick a short one and write some music for it.’

“So I took that to our booking agent, and he said ‘Why don’t you put together four films for a show, a nice evening of film. So I did, and the rest is history. What we’ve done is take two films by an unknown who was a contemporary of Charlie Chaplin, but nobody’s ever heard of him. His name is Charlie Bowers. We call his films surrealism, not because it’s like from the French surrealistic school, but because it’s like taking drugs without having to take drugs. It’s great family entertainment that way! None of his films exist in America; eleven copies were found in Europe in the possession of gypsies who took them around from town to town and showed ‘em, probably for money. So that’s the tie-in with gypsy jazz.

“Then we have a spooky, scary film of The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allen Poe, that’s kind of fun. And the last one is a bittersweet film about a poor little boy who gets an opportunity to go on a field trip to the big city. People watch it and they’re not sure at the end how they’re supposed to feel about it---was that happy or sad?”

Mehling formed the Hot Club of San Francisco in 1990 after a five-year stint with bay area music legend Dan Hicks. Hicks had been one of his favorites in high school.

“I grew up in a household where my father was a record collector,” he explained. “So I grew up listening to all that good stuff like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. I was interested in The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and all---that kind of hit me like a ton of bricks. And that was it! Having grown up listening to jazz, then seeing The Beatles with all those guitars, it was like ‘I’m gonna get a guitar.’ So I begged and I begged and finally got a guitar; took some lessons like you do when you’re a kid. It didn’t really fit together for me right away, but I kept with the guitar.

“Then The Beatles broke up and the musical landscape shifted, and acoustic music came in. Crosby Stills & Nash---it was so heavy on the vocals, but other than that it was really cool because it was acoustic. That led to Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. I was in high school and I was a major geek ‘cause I was trying to turn everybody on to it. That was the thing that got me plugged in. Then I started really listening to my father’s records going back to Django. There were only five Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks records, but there were tons of Django records.”

So, while his schoolmates were tuned in to James Taylor, Carole King and Led Zeppelin, Paul Mehling found a different inspiration:

“I did everything musical in school. I was also playing violin, in the jazz band, in the orchestra, just trying to soak up as much as I could of this music thing. I had that funny feeling like that was IT for me. I did play with some rock and roll bands in high school, but pretty much I was always trying to play jazz.

“I’ve met a few other geeks like myself and it’s the same---It just sort of gets you and you start pursuing it, and you realize the consequences are going to be pretty high. Your friends are gonna reject you, girls aren’t gonna want to go out with you; you just kind of stick with it. I was lucky I found some patient girls, but pretty much it was like wearing a big red ‘geek’ letter.”

One of the reasons for Django Reinhardt’s unique style was the fact that he’d worked out his own fingering system after losing the use of two of the fingers on his left hand in a fire. I wondered what that meant for a five-fingered fretman.

“Actually, you wind up playing a lot with two fingers,” Mehling said, “especially trying to imitate him with the solos. It’s really easier when you use two fingers. That defines the whole difference between playing regular guitar and playing gypsy guitar, the approach, the concept of what you do with those two fingers.”

The Hot Club of San Francisco replicates the Reinhardt/Grapelli lineup of the ‘30s: lead guitar, two rhythm guitars, violin and standup bass. Unlike many of the Hot Clubs, they cover not only the old stuff but write originals themselves. And they all have nicknames---Paul is “Pazzo, like pizza with an ‘a.’ We’re not real gypsies but we christened each other with gypsy nicknames.”

The band’s most recent recording, Postcards from Gypsyland, is excellent, and their music speaks for itself. But Pazzo says playing with movies is a kick all its own.

“We like the spotlight and everything, but it’s fun to watch these films and play along with them and try and find something that we can illuminate with music.”

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