Naxos World
760566-2, 2003
artist website, label website
Despite the epithet Gypsy Swing on their fourth release, the French formation Harmonious Wail does not neatly dovetail with the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli groove otherwise implied. For one, there are founder/leader Sims Delaney-Potthoff's mandolins, one Bruce Taggart "F-style", one Macaferri-style Rob Aylward. Their timbres far more suggests Russian balalaika or Dave Grisman Bluegrass sensibilities than the notorious Selmer guitar sound of the genre. Then there are spouse Maggie's jazzy vocals. They lithely bop in English or Russian, speed-scat for instrumental riffs or find themselves backed up by tight harmonizing from the group. Add Eastern European Czardas numbers, made-over America Jazz standard and what you arrive at is a Manouche-inspired but otherwise eclectic goulash of various spicy musical strains including the romantically old-fashioned musette and swing valse.

Sims credits Kenneth Burns [right] with the original Harmonious Wail concept. This initially underrated mandolin wizard -- of the zany, Grand Ole Opry-fame, country comedy duo Homer & Jethro -- enjoyed primary popularity for his exaggerated hillbilly patter and outrageous parodies of popular songs. This inspired clownery disguised his unprecedented mastery of the instrument which found virtuoso expression after guitar partner Hayne's death in 1971. Burns' solo career then abandoned comedy and dove headfirst into a unique self-made style combining jazz, swing, country, folk and bluegrass to net some of the hottest swing recordings of the time. He also co-wrote two books with Ken Edison on how to play his chosen instrument and performed with folksinger Steve Goodman and country guitar legend Chet Atkins.

Sims studied under Burns for seven years before further cementing his foundation at the Boston Berkelee College of Music and launching Harmonious Wail in 1987. Guitarist/vocalist Tom Waselchuk's collaboration with Sims precedes the current group with 4 common years in the Stone Oak Bluegrass Band. Before joining Wail in 2001, Tom pursued an intermediate career playing folk/blues with Katzenjammers and the Rubato Brothers, and western swing/honky tonk with The Dang-Its and Cris Plata & Extra Hot. Add Henry Boehm on upright bass; Randy Hoecherl on violin; Brian Erickson on accordion; Todd Steward on drums and congas; and you arrive at the present lineup for Gypsy Swing. On balance, this album -- which follows Airborne, Nonchalant and a live cut of 1997's Zelt Music Festival in Germany's Freiburg -- feels far closer to Grisman's Dawg music than the Quintet du Hot Club de France, with plenty of rapid Appalachian lute pickin' and rowdy fiddling. However, Waselchuck's Selmer guitar riffs and Erickson's accordion inject the requisite Parisian vibe to explode the Americana focus.

Once you add Russian folk tunes like "Moscow Nights", "Czardas" or "Dark Eyes", your stylistic compass is revving at high RPMs in a hopeless attempt to maintain proper North on such moving targets. Maggie's "St. Louis woman with a diamond ring" opens like Gershwin's "Summer Time", time shifts into a shrum-shrum Manouche number, changes colors to sawdust country-blues and, before the tune's out, has touched upon every conceivable angle imaginable in this wider gipsyfied milieu. Ditto for the old "Sheikh of Araby" chestnut that here undergoes svelte vocal harmonizing, quite the respite from Jimmy Rosenberg's fretwork fireworks rendition thereof, with Frank Vignola and Jon Burr during the Django Reinhardt NY Festival 2000.

While there's no shortage of bona fide Djangoists -- Biréli Lagrène, Romane, the unrelated Stochelo and Jimmy Rosenberg, Angelo Debarre, Jon Larson and the American monster guitarist Frank Vignola immediately spring to mind -- the number of ensembles transplanting the spirit of this celebrated Gipsy into nouveau soil is, sadly, rather lean. There's Seattle's Pearl Django (with their new Swing 48 release the next review) and the fabulous but not very active Café Noir. There's the Turkish/ Romanian Nalbantoglu/de Brasov trio. There are the actual Reinhardt descendants Bawo, Lulo and Degé jamming under the I Gitanos banner. There's Arbat with the irrepressible Pascal de Loutchek. If I lived in France -- or that other Django epicenter, Norway -- I'd probably know a few more. Regardless, it's can't be more than a small smattering a best. Thanks to Baro Dewel (which, I'm told, is how the gitanos refer to their higher power), for adding to this dying-breed number with Harmonious Wail. Definitely not in the Xerox business of carbon-copifucation, these folks are highly original and take Sinti Swing into corners of our small connoisseur's world that are charming, smart, creative and unexpectedly exciting.