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Gypsy Jazz from U Students: Hot Club of Zion

HCZ at JCC dancer

I’m pretty sure gypsy jazz got under my skin the first time I watched the movie “Chocolat.” I mean, there’s something captivating about an Irish gypsy sitting on a French riverbank strumming a guitar in a key that goes straight to your heart. Full disclosure: Johnny Depp with a ponytail and crooked grin may have played a small role in my transportation.

However, the sound itself was potent enough to make me watch the credits to learn the name of the tune: “Minor Swing” by Django Reinhardt. I’d never heard of him. Or thought much more about his music. That is, until guitarist Frank Vignola rolled into town. It was when Vignola and his band played the music live (with no ponytails in sight) that my distant affection turned into a full-blown love affair.

Cooling off the hot valley with jazz. photo courtesy Jon Grippe

So when I learned that jazz students in the University of Utah’s School of Music had formed a combo called the Hot Club of Zion (“hot club jazz” and “gypsy swing” are other names for the style), I had to hear them play in person.

Grooving to “Daphne”

My first opportunity was a very warm Salt Lake City evening in July. The Hot Club of Zion took the intimate stage outdoors at the Jewish Community Center–with the valley and mountains forming an exquisite backdrop. No fanfare, not much banter, just the swing and flair of acoustic guitars, base and violin playing toe-tapping renditions of gypsy jazz, swing and jazz standards from the 1930’s and 1940’s. From the very first notes, the crowd—from dancing toddlers to seniors with special requests—was hooked. Their website says “you can rest assured that the crowd will be on their feet dancing,” and indeed, it was.

I learned that in April this year, the group won top honors at the UNC/Greeley Jazz Festival, the largest event of its kind in the nation. When I read that jazz saxophonist Dave Pietro commented about their performance that they were one of his all-time favorite combos in such a setting, I figured they must know something about the music.

I’ll say. In addition to fast-paced gypsy jazz favorites, we were treated over the nearly non-stop two hour performance to the soothing melody of “Georgia,” heart-tugging love song “All of Me,” and Nathan Royal originals “Salt City Blues” and “Waltz for Daryl” (written for his dad) among a dozen more.

Liz Conway, Nathan Royal

The Hot Club of Zion is composed of four young and very talented players:

 -Nathan Royal, a junior from Anchorage, Alaska, plays lead guitar and is the spokesman for the group. He spent a year and a half traveling and living in Southeast Asia and India. He also sings and composes.

-Liz Conway on the violin, also from Anchorage, is the only non-music major in the group. She is a senior in biomedical engineering and also captain of a local Frisbee team.

James Martak

-James Martak plays rhythm guitar, hails from Salt Lake City, and is also a junior. Other pursuits he enjoys include backpacking and brewing beer (presumably not at the same time).

Kevin Schultz

-Kevin Schultz playing upright base, is a senior from Salt Lake. In his spare time, he enjoys working on and building musical instruments.

They started off together as a jazz combo for the School of Music in the Spring of 2011, and were soon playing gigs all over town. They are making a go at becoming a professional band locally, and aspire for national recognition. To that point, they have just recorded their first CD, which will be available in August. Watch their website www.thehotclubofzion.com for  more news about the launch, and where to head out so you can hear them next. 

That is, if you don’t mind letting “Minor Swing” get under your skin for about a week.