Time travelers

By JON GARELICK  |  July 19, 2010

On July 21, a homegrown version of Django’s music comes to the Regattabar, the New Hampshire “power trio” Ameranouche. On their most recent CD, Awake, they deliver two Reinhardt hallmarks: virtuoso speed and hard swing grooves. They also pay homage to Reinhardt’s true eclecticism by returning Edith Piaf’s “La foule” to its flamenco roots, and otherwise rounding out the disc with 10 pieces that include an original bossa nova and, in a couple of tunes, touches of American folk where the trio sing in unison.

Richard Sheppard wrote the originals, and his playing is the immediate drawing card: big and often raw (“American”), scraping and tearing through blinding 16th-note passages, often taking off in harmonic explorations that one might not associate with the Django school. But Reinhardt is unmistakable in Sheppard’s “Oriental” ornaments and in the “pompe” rhythms of guitarist Ryan Flaherty and bassist Xar Adelberg. Sheppard knows how to vary his attack and mix up the rhythmic flow of his lines, and how to project acoustic guitar, bending multi-syllable notes and making them hang in the air.

When I reach Flaherty on the phone, he tells me that he fell under the spell of Gypsy jazz first in the States and then when he toured Europe and saw Gypsies playing in the street. Back home, living in Tennessee, he posted on a Berklee online musician’s forum and hooked up with Sheppard. “He was looking for a rhythm player, and I was looking to play rhythm with someone.” The common thread was Reinhardt.

Flaherty flew up to New Hampshire, where the two hit it off and went into “Gypsy-jazz boot camp,” the younger man diving into the style’s particular rhythmic demands, which he summarizes as “stamina and accuracy. It’s a very physical style of music. You have to build the correct muscle memory and the muscles in your right hand. It’s not like American [jazz] swing or Western swing, it’s much more ‘masculine.’ It takes a lot of strength, stamina, and willpower.”

Flaherty is justly proud of the band’s originals. He points out that on “Ameranouche Swing,” the trio combine samba and swing rhythms, and that flamenco has become more prominent in their music. He’s also proud that Gypsy musicians have praised them. The band’s name is a play on “manouche” — a term that’s used to refer to Gypsies in general and Belgian Django Reinhardt’s tribe in particular. “We’re Americans, we’re not Gypsies, but we’re playing Gypsy jazz.”

By coincidence — but only coincidence — singer Shelley Neill’s most recent CD is called Irish Eyes Gypsy Soul. Yes, Neill — the long-time executive director of the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center — has a Hungarian grandmother. But after being given up for adoption by her Irish Catholic mother, she was raised by a Jewish family in a suburb of Newark. So Irish Eyes Gypsy Soul is more about her tangled roots and itinerant æsthetic than about Django Reinhardt. And the music is American, including the jazz standard “Fly Me to the Moon,” Abbey Lincoln’s “The Music Is the Magic,” Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and the Mamas & the Papas’ hit “Dedicated to the One I Love.”

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