Gypsy jazz to flavor an afternoon of silent classics at Silvermine
Gypsy jazz: Hot Club of San Francisco flavors silent-film classics at Silvermine
Updated 3:32 pm, Friday, April 20, 2012
After many years of strumming the strings, Paul Mehling may have gained a certain mastery over his guitar, but he knew his talent would only go so far when it came to mixing music and the movies.
"It's really hard to create a film score," he said, during a recent telephone interview from San Francisco, where he lives. Among the challenges, he said, is playing to the mood of the piece, rather than simply synching the music to the action.
So, he decided to start small, bringing in some of the other members of the Hot Club of San Francisco, an ensemble of musicians he leads that celebrates and performs the music of gypsy jazz, to work on compositions for a handful of short, silent films.
The end result is "Cinema Vivant," a program the group is expected to bring to the Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan on Sunday, April 22.
"This is our second film program," said Mehling, who was initially inspired to try his hand at such a project when attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The first one "worked so well that we decided to put together a new film show."
"Cinema Vivant" represents a diverse selection of silent shorts, yet it is unified by the theme of animation, he said.
One can see works by one of the pioneers of early stop-action animation, Ladislaw Starewicz, in "The Cameraman's Revenge," which focuses on the infidelity of a pair of married beetles, and "The Mascot," a tale about lost toys.
The third film, "There It Is," created by the early 1900s American filmmaker Charley Bowers, combines animation with live action. It comically tells the tale of a mystery, as investigated by Scotland Yard.
"We found these films to have fairly long moods that we can sustain with a single piece of music," said Mehling, who added that the score also leaves room for improvisation.
Improvisation, of course, is an important component of jazz, which in the case of the Hot Club of San Francisco, is the kind of jazz that has come to be known as gypsy jazz.
Born out of the talent of gypsy jazz guitarists, such as Django Reinhardt, who were working in France in the 1920s and '30s, the style blended the multicultural influences of gypsy music with American jazz and swing. When Reinhardt teamed with violinist Stephane Grappelli, the duo created one of the best-known groups of the genre, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France.
When asked to define what makes the gypsy jazz sound unique from other genres, Mehling noted that it is more about "evoking a visceral response from the listener.
"There is a beauty in technique for technique sake, but when the technique serves the music ...," Mehling said, pausing. "We want you to feel (the music) in your heart or in your stomach."
There are many musicians and "Hot Clubs" around the world who are keeping up the tradition of gypsy jazz, mining the established repertoire, even as new compositions are created for today's generation of fans.
"It is a fine line to keep true to the tradition, but bring the music forward for modern ears," Mehling said.
Mehling, who has been playing the guitar since he was 6, established the Hot Club of San Francisco about 22 years ago, and has played with a number of different musicians over the years. The recent lineup, however, has been in place for about seven years.
Although the group will be facing a modern audience with modern sensibilities, Mehling said the response to these kind of shows have been very enthusiastic.
"When something is good, it is always good," he said.
As for gypsy jazz, Mehling said he has seen a steady uptick in interest over the years. As for the reasons, he said there could be many. For the past 15 years, he has been putting on instructional videos on how to play in the style, which he said might have something to do with it.
He added that every couple of years there is a cultural confluence that puts the spotlight back on this kind of music. For instance Woody Allen's Oscar-winning 2011 movie "Midnight in Paris," featured a gypsy jazz-inspired score, and even Martin Scorsese's movie "Hugo" contains a little flavor of this sound.
"This is a good time for us," Mehling said.
Silvermine Arts Center, 1037 Silvermine Road, New Canaan. Sunday, April 22, 4 p.m. $20 nonmembers, $15 members. Reservations suggested. 203-966-9700, ext. 22; www.silvermineart.org.