Rhythm Future Quartet breaks new ground for Gypsy jazz
Django Reinhardt is one of the most influential guitarists in jazz, but the “Gypsy jazz” he invented with violinist Stephane Grappelli in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France can seem as dated, and codified, as Baroque opera. The Hot Club embedded Django’s guitar in a specific context: acoustic guitars, bass, and violin, furious “Gypsy” lead-guitar chromatic ornamentations, and ceaseless four-to-the-bar “pomp” swing rhythms. Unlike other revivalist swing outfits, who can work variations on old repertoire and sound fresh, Gypsy jazz would seem a dead end.
Yet, more than 50 years after Django’s death, the Hot Club sound lives on. There are numerous Django fests and Django camps, and any number of Reinhardt-inspired bands, from New England’s Ameranouche to New Orleans’s Harmonouche.
“It’s a niche style,” allows Jason Anick, the 29-year-old violinist and co-leader of the latest entry in the crowded field, Boston’s Rhythm Future Quartet, which plays the Arsenal Center for the Arts on Nov. 17 and Arts at the Armory in Somerville on Nov. 22. An instructor at Berklee, Anick has broad interests. In two albums under his own name, he covers Horace Silver, the Beatles, and Ornette Coleman, and writes challenging originals. So . . . why Django?
“It’s the energy, the acoustic sound, the virtuosity, the excitement,” Anick says before the quartet’s recent CD-release show at Passim. But, just as important, he sees the Hot Club setup as still ripe with possibilities. For one, the “chamber jazz” format (all acoustic, no drums) allows for intricate arrangements and innovation. The band takes its name from one of Reinhardt’s most avant-garde forays, “Rhythm Futur,” an unclassifiable rave-up that breaks standard song form with odd rhythmic shifts and harmonies.
“Compositionally, it was very wild and outside of what was going on,” says Anick. “We want to push the style with Gypsy jazz in a similar way.” Another attraction of Gypsy jazz: “Violin and guitar are at the center of it.”
That guitar would be Olli Soikkeli, 23, who is with us at Passim. As someone who picked up guitar as a 12-year-old in a small eastern Finnish town, did Soikkeli play Scandinavian black metal, then switch to Django?
“That’s exactly what happened,” Soikkeli answers. “Well, not black black metal, but Metallica and all the great rock players.” Recognizing his talents, his mother found him a worldly guitar teacher who introduced him to Django. Soikelli was soon in his teacher’s band, eating up the playing of latter-day Django-ologists like Stochelo Rosenberg.
“I was like, holy cow, these guys can play as fast with acoustic guitars as rock guys with all the distortion and effects.”
Soikkeli made biannual visits to the states and met Anick at the annual “Django in June” camp in Northampton, where both were teaching.
“The Rhythm Future Quartet” CD shows a hint of the band’s potential — it’s all covers, but hardly for Django purists. Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” is here, and “Summertime” is introduced with a bassline from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
And then there’s the playing. Anick supplements his sweeping, unpredictable lines and high-velocity outbursts with a sweet tone and rich vibrato. When he plays the Reinhardt/Grappelli ballad “Tears,” his vocal phrasing shows a depth of feeling that transcends slick showmanship.
Soikkeli shreds with purpose. His articulation at high speeds — flurries of 8th and 16th notes — is stunning, and beautiful. And though he can’t resist double-timing a slow-tempo piece like “La Gitane,” you sense the steely control behind the youthfully impetuous virtuosity.
“I played with Olli and Stéphane Wrembel,” says bassist Greg Loughman, at 41 the “old man” of the band. Guitarist Wrembel, a veteran player who has provided period-specific music for Woody Allen projects like “Paris at Midnight,” was an early supporter of Soikelli on his visits to New York. “It was like standing between Dionysus and Apollo,” says Loughman. “Stéphane was wild, and with Olli every note was like a pearl.”
At the Passim show, Rhythm Future offers more of Anick’s tweaks on the formula. They play his winding composition “Sleepless,” a modern jazz steeplechase that fits the Gypsy jazz setup to a T. In a duo feature, Soikkeli and guitarist Ivan Peña (filling in for quartet member Vinny Raniolo), play a Russian folk song — in the Gypsy style. And Anick spins off more than one classically-influenced cadenza. Meanwhile, Peña drives the “pomp” rhythm that Anick calls the piston of the band while Loughman provides leavening with his pliant beat.
Can the Rhythm Future Quartet draw not only from Django Reinhardt’s sound, but also his spirit of invention, to create new music? Loughman, whose many gigs include the Klezwoods neo-klezmer band, recalls an answer one of his bandmates gave to a listener critical of that band’s departure from “pure” klezmer style: “It all depends on whether you see it as a live tradition or a dead tradition.” Adds Loughman, “You can do whatever you want. It’s a matter of whether people accept it, and whether you’re good enough to pull it off.”
Those who missed John Zorn’s “Masada Marathon” at Newport this summer get a second chance to hear from him on Tuesday, when New England Conservatory presents “The Music of John Zorn: A 35-Year Retrospective” at Jordan Hall. A 7 p.m. Q&A between Zorn and frequent collaborator and NEC faculty member Anthony Coleman precedes the 8 p.m. concert. . . . Another Zorn associate, saxophonist Uri Gurvich, plays Berklee’s Café 939 Wednesday. . . . The always politically sharp Aardvark Jazz Orchestra continues its season with a free election-week special at MIT’s Killian Hall Saturday . . . . Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra offers new work by Darrell Katz, Bob Pilkington, Bruno Raberg, Ken Schaphorst, and Nicolas Urie at Cambridge YMCA Theatre Nov. 7.