Whit Smith's Hot Jazz Caravan
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So how did Whit Smith feel when Patti Smith asked the local guitarist to come to Electric Lady's Studio A to add twangy Telecaster to her 1996 Gone Again album?
"It was an awkward moment," reveals the Hot Jazz Caravan founder. "I'm sitting between my friend Lenny Kaye and producer Malcolm Burn. Lenny was like, 'Yeah, more bendy stuff,' and Malcolm was like, 'It was good until that bendy thing.'
"It was terrible but it was also awesome, because Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine were sitting in the sound booth."
Ah, the musician's dilemma: the balancing act of following your muse while pleasing your fans. Sometimes it means dissolving a successful band, as Whit Smith, Elana James, née Fremerman, and Jake Erwin did with Austin's Hot Club of Cowtown.
In 1997, humble Continental Club happy hours helped form the trio, who went on to release five High Tone albums while playing their asses off internationally. Touring with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson in the summer of 2004 was the acoustic powerhouse's de facto swan song. Fiddler James now Elana James & the Continental Two and Smith performed together for more than a decade, and according to the slender six-stringer, benign factors were at play.
"Eventually you have ideas you want to pursue on your own," he shrugs. "It might have seemed like a crazy time to [break up], but that's what happened."
The new idea? Bigger band, broader repertoire. Joining Smith are clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Jon Doyle, bassist Jake Erwin, guitarist and arranger J.D. Pendley, and fiddler Michael Montgomery. Smith claims there's no Cowtowners bad blood.
"It's amicable, and as a matter of fact we have some parties over the next year we're going to play."
The intense momentum of hot jazz, stylistically defined somewhere between ragtime and swing, is summed up by Eddie Condon's quip regarding it and its abstract brethren: "We don't flat our fifths, we drink them." Good thing Smith's new outfit employs "hot" too, as the band emits sparks like a cherry bomb on a smokin' skillet. The three-time SXSW veteran decided this year to "let the music do the talking" via the band's weekly gigs. In addition to well over two hours of music at their fingertips, including the award-winning 2004 indie film soundtrack to Four Dead Batteries, the Austin quintet will offer up originals from their eminent release.
Perhaps the Hot Jazz Caravan's quickest reference is Bob Wills, with the Light Crust Doughboys and Texas Playboys, who united country, jazz, and pop into a danceable whole. Django Reinhardt's spirit does plenty of the latter in this mix. So how does Smith balance the cowboy and the gypsy?
"They're both playing dance music with a lot of energy, but full of spontaneity. And they're putting their own spin on it, whether it's a gypsy or West Texas."
The same could be said of the Hot Jazz Caravan, the soundtrack of Django Reinhardt lounging in the back of Bob Wills' Airstream.
SXSW showcase: Friday, March 17, 6-8pm @ Elephant Room