The Gypsy Hombres Revive a Lost Art
The warm atmosphere of Rudy’s Jazz Room welcomed me from the unexpectedly cold evening of February 28. I let the hostess know I was there, and took a seat at the bar. Being a Thursday evening rather than a Saturday night, the Room was rather empty at the start of the show, making for an especially intimate atmosphere. Just as the bartender brought me my drink, the band took the stage, a local jazz group, The Gypsy Hombres. The band featured leader Peter Hyrka on violin, Jeff Henderson on bass, and Nashville multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Rory Hoffman on guitar, accordion, and, surprisingly enough, bouzouki.
The band featured a rather traditional Gypsy jazz lineup, with the exception of Hoffman playing a standard electric hollow-body guitar, rather than keeping the group strictly acoustic. The Hombres played some original music right off the bat, capturing the essence of Gypsy jazz well. The first tune, “Nuages de la Nuit,” paying homage to the French origin of this music, featured all the essential elements of Gypsy jazz. From the almost-straight, light swing of the classic boom-chick rhythm of the guitar, to that minor-6 harmony, to the melancholy melodies of the violin, the group paid a reverential homage to the man who started it all, Django Reinhardt.
The Hombres played several more originals in the first set, including a beautiful ballad that effortlessly transitioned to double time in the middle section. This song also gave Hoffman a chance to showcase his intimate knowledge of the fretboard. Hoffman is an incredible soloist, but here he demonstrated his deep understanding of harmony and chord voicings, easily gliding between voicings up and down the neck, an effect that can provide much-needed variety and interest in a small group like a trio. With the bass holding down the bass line, and the violin providing the melody, Hoffman was often the only member of the group who had the flexibility in his role to provide something a little extra, and he certainly seized on the opportunity.
Although the band had a great compositional talent in writing originals, it wouldn’t truly be a Gypsy jazz group without giving a more direct deference to Django. The band played a number of Reinhardt standards, including “Swing from Paris” and “Swing 42,” in which Hoffman showcased his multi-instrumentalist abilities and played accordion. Had one walked in at this moment, one would be forgiven for thinking this was Hoffman’s only instrument, as he displayed technical prowess and knowledge of the instrument equal to someone who had studied it solely.
After the first set the band took a break, during which Hyrka made sure to go around the room and talk to most of the patrons, adding an extra feeling of friendliness and intimacy. The second set brought more Django standards as well as more originals, including a tune called “Chant of the Night,” which the band referred to as their “Halloween Song.” Featuring a spooky, haunting melody and a minor sound, this tune was another that encapsulated the core sound of Gypsy jazz. A ballad which the band boasted would one day feature in a James Bond film lived up to its hype, featuring a chromatic riff base that was indeed reminiscent of those classic films.
One of the great things about this band was that they had the ability to pay due respect to the origins of their music, while also easily incorporating aspects of other genres of music, including other folk music, blues, and country. Towards the end of their second set, the Hombres played an original tune called “Email Special,” which maintained many aspects of Gypsy jazz, while also incorporating others. Based on a simple riff that started in the bass which the guitar built upon, the guitar then added a dominant chord progression, giving it almost a country-blues feel. It was this ability to seamlessly fuse multiple genres of music into one coherent whole that gave this band its most unique feature.
Aside from the band’s compositional skill and appropriate choice of repertoire, each member was a competent improviser by himself. In standard jazz fashion, the band would play the main theme of the tune, led primarily but not exclusively by Hyrka on violin, then take turns improvising over the chord changes. Generally, this would play out as Hyrka taking a solo after playing the melody, then Hoffman having a turn, then on to Henderson on bass, followed finally by Hyrka leading them back in on the melody. All three members were skilled at communicating the essential language of jazz manouche, lending a traditional and authentic sound to their music, while also infusing the language of other genres that have influenced them. Hyrka could be heard seamlessly interpreting country and blues licks into his solos.
As a guitarist, and someone to whom Gypsy jazz has a special meaning, I took a special interest in Hoffman. The guitarist and multi-instrumentalist is well known in Nashville for his technical skill and competence in a wide range of musical genres. I’ve heard Hoffman play country, blues, and traditional jazz, all of which impressed me greatly, but this was an especially moving and impressive performance. Hoffman demonstrated his fundamental understanding and intimate knowledge of this style of jazz, perfectly emulating the language of Django and his contemporaries, and yet simultaneously lending his own voice to his solos, displaying his extensive array of influences. It was as if Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt had fused their abilities. Hoffman portrayed the mood and technical prowess of Django, while incorporating the bluesy, more theme-based style of Wes. From an analytical standpoint, many of Hoffman’s solos also took a similar arc to those of Wes. Montgomery had a keen ear for how to build a solo, usually beginning with single-note lines, building into his famed octave playing, then finally peaking with a feature of his ability to create lines with chords. Hoffman emulated this process well, and it had the same effect. His solos became more convincing and moving as they went on. It was a truly impressive performance.
Overall, this band gave an outstanding performance, simultaneously paying homage to the origins of their music with standards and giving their own voice to it with originals. All three members of the group were incredibly competent in their understanding of the music, and their improvisational abilities as well. It is nothing short of a boon to this community that this group is able to expose an audience to a genre of music that even many jazz enthusiasts overlook. It is rare to find a group so talented to evangelize this kind of music, and anyone who is interested in hearing an authentic rendering has everything to gain from experiencing their performance.