What is jazz? And why do some people love it like chocolate while others think of it as the musical equivalent of beets and brussels sprouts? I think it’s more a matter of public relations and misunderstandings than anything else. As Gypsy Hombre Peter Hyrka said last night, he’ll frequently hear folks say “I don’t like jazz but I love what you guys do.” But who couldn’t like what the Gypsy Hombres do (and did last night on Roots)? And who could deny that their music, along with J.D. Souther’s melodious pop, Carolyn Martin’s western swing, is jazz AND roots at the same time?
Yes we had a swinging, stringing great time last night, reveling in some classic music of the past and some new expressions of tradition by all of those remarkable artists. And we were treated to one of the most amazing displays of multi-instrumental virtuosity by a single musician we’ve seen yet on Roots. More on that in a minute.
I’m not sure you could kick off a variety roots music show with more panache or joy than did Carolyn Martin and her hearty, seven-piece western swing band. Nodding to her current, food-obsessed CD “Cookin’ With Carolyn,” she launched with “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked A Cake,” which was nice to hear because for my generation that song was a Sesame Street number sung by Ernie. But hey, it’s a real song, and a tasty one too. Martin really showed her classic pipes off with “People Will Say We’re In Love,” that magnificent standard. And she proved she’s an original with a song she co-wrote during her time the great Time Jumpers, a serious swinger called “Texas To A T.”
Up next, Vietti emerging artist Erika Chambers featured songs from her debut full-length album, which she said with great delight and pride was fresh in from the pressing plant and on sale in physical form for the first time ever at Music City Roots. (We love it when artists honor us like that.) And we think you’ll like what’s on it based on last night’s trio of original but classic sounding tunes. “Birmingham” was minor and plaintive. “The War” told a story of hard times and a hard-working mamma over a bluesy groove. And “Won’t Be Shaken By No Storm” was a song she wrote just days before the floods of last May, and she’s made the gospel-heavy song a rallying cry for her work with United Way and flood relief.
Now all this time, through Carolyn’s set and Erika’s set, there was this guy over on a stool on stage right, playing everything in sight. He skittered across the accordion during the western swing stuff. He played harmonica and mandolin with Chambers. And you could tell he’s just one of those guys who can make magic on any instrument he touches. His name is Rory Hoffman, and he stayed put up there for the third act, because they were the Gypsy Hombres, and really, they are his primary band. And here’s where he got to play what he might say is his primary instrument – the guitar. Now Rory is an unusual cat. He’s blind and he plays stringed instruments in his lap – overhand. And what he does with frets and a pick in that unorthodox configuration is nothing short of wondrous.
The Hombres are a trio featuring founder Peter Hyrka on violin/fiddle, Jason Oettel on bass and Rory on guitar and accordion. They are a venerable Nashville band and the first to bring the Django Hot Jazz revival to Music City. They’ve been really good in the past, but with this new grouping, they’re scary. Hyrka taps right into that Eastern European romance and darkness. Oettel was just dazzling, taking solos on bass that were precise, daring and clean. And Hoffman is on his way to becoming a guitar deity. His runs, his chordal playing, his octave stuff were all just beyond exciting. Watching these master improvers at work was clearly a hit with the crowd, which gave them a rousing standing ovation. And that, to answer a question put earlier, is jazz.
Our most famous artist last night took a ride on the A Train as well. The great J.D. Souther came out with his own trio (Viktor Krauss on bass and Chris Walters on piano) and swung into “Ain’t Misbehavin’” that classic and dandy Fats Waller standard. He offered a few originals that were new to me and then wended back into jazz terrain with a boldly reworked version of “Bye Bye Blackbird.” We knew he wouldn’t leave us wanting for a few standards of his own, and sure enough, he did a nice boogie-infused version of “Heartache Tonight” and wrapped the show with an ensemble cast, Loveless Jam take on “Best Of My Love.”