Hot Club of Cowtown played two shows last week at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley. The trio consists of of Elana James on violin and vocals, Whit Smith on guitar and vocals and Jake Erwin on the bass. Their music is a combination of gypsy jazz and western swing, with improvisation and soul mixed in. The result is a high energy set list that is never the same.
Jazz Alley is an upscale supper club environment in downtown Seattle. According to Jazz Alley’s website, they are “a fixture of the Seattle live music and dining scene, family owned and operated since 1979.” Though they focus on jazz, they do invite a variety of musical talents that test the boundaries of the genre. The local radio station KBCS frequently sponsors shows there and has a continued partnership with the club.
Whit Smith explained that the Hot Club of Cowtown’s influence comes mainly from older jazz and older western, stemming from “A whole bunch of different musics from probably from before the 1960s. And it’s not only United States oriented, sometimes its Latin stuff in there too.” While it may seem confusing to some to see where jazz could cross over into a western or country feel, examining the musical history in the United States brings clarity. “Before the 1950s western swing was sort of a form of jazz. After the 50s the language kind of got changed around describing what was what. Honky Tonk came around and western swing became more like country music after that. So we play a lot of earlier jazz, you know, Louis Armstrong, sort of 20s and 30s jazz, and that fits right in with Western Swing. And then there’s a whole bunch of older style songs too.”
While the trio’s influence may stem from older music, many original songs are written by band members. Improvisation is a big part of their music, “All the soul is improvised. A lot of times the key of the songs is probably the same and the arrangement of the song is kind of the same. But there’s a lot of spontaneity,” said Smith.
After the show the band, had a long line of people ready to purchase music and chat with the band members, who were ready to talk to anyone. After asking for a show of hands during the show it was obvious that many of the attendees were big fans who had seen the band before when they played in North Seattle at a bar called The Tractor. Hot Club tours frequently and has a history of playing in Seattle.
After mentioning a day they performed in Pike Place Market, one fan actually came forward to say he had a memory of that time. “It’s crazy, I saw you guys in the market in ‘97, I remember your bass player was sick and I talked to you guys then.”
Another fan approached Smith to say “You have moved me. I’ve never heard so much music come from three people.”
The fusion style of the band’s music has given them a wide variety of venues in which to perform. Smith said they’ve been everywhere from “Bar mitzvahs to rodeos and everything in between. We play some folk, festivals, we play occasionally at jazz festivals, occasionally at a supper club like here. In Texas our residence where we play every week is a place called the Continental club. And they play everything from rock and roll to soul music.”
Smith explained that these moments with fans make smaller venues the best type to play in, saying “Dive bars if there are people there and they are into it. It’s just so personal. The two hours just go by like that, so much fun.” The more the audience responds, he said, the more the band gets into the performance. More information can be found at the band’s website at www.hotclubofcowtown.com.