The Venerable Gypsy Swing Combo Interprets the Beatles on the Gorgeous New Album John, Paul, George and Django

The Venerable Gypsy Swing Combo Interprets the Beatles on the Gorgeous New Album John, Paul, George and Django


It was only a matter of time before guitarist Paul Mehling focused his creative mojo on Lennon and McCartney’s vast and enduring treasure trove of songs. The founder and guiding spirit of the Hot Club of San Francisco, America’s longest running Gypsy swing ensemble, Mehling was first inspired to pick up a guitar when the Beatles launched the British Invasion via Ed Sullivan’s CBS variety show on Feb. 9, 1964. Now Mehling’s HCSF is recolonizing the Fab Four’s songbook in the name of Gypsy jazz legend Django Reinhardt with John, Paul, George and Django, a ravishing and consistently revelatory reimagining of classic Beatles tunes. Slated for release on Mehling’s Hot Club label in September, 2016, the band’s 14th album is designed both to seduce Beatlephiles and enchant Djangologists, with arrangements that serve the songs rather than turning them into vehicles for blazing solos.

“We’ve been road testing arrangements and tune selections for several years and it’s just gold,” Mehling says. “These tunes were really well crafted, and our job is to present the songs through our prism. Our vision can be summed up as WWDD?: What Would Django Do? What if he hadn’t died, and had lived long enough to interpret Beatles songs? Because you know he totally would have.”

In many ways, Mehling planted the seeds for the project some two decades ago. On 1994’s Quintet of the Hot Club of San Francisco the band interpreted “And I Love Her,” and a few years later on 1997’s Swing This, Mehling found an ideal conduit for Gypsy soul in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” He wants to make clear that the album’s title isn’t intended to diminish Ringo Starr’s essential contributions, noting that like Ella Fitzgerald interpreting Cole Porter, the album is about “John, Paul, and George as composers.” Their songs have rarely sounded so enthralling. 

With its psychedelic production and hypnotic 5/4 groove, “Fool On the Hill” feels like Django traded Parisian nightlife for an acid test, a trip he thoroughly enjoyed. With French-born Hot Club rhythm guitarist Isabelle Fontaine’s simmering delivery of her translated lyrics “If I Needed Someone” turns into a Gallic torch song (and check out Mehling’s brilliant interpolation of “Within You Without You” in his solo). “Don’t Bother Me” bounces with a swinging reggae feel, and “You Can’t Do That” gets to Paris via New Orleans with a washboard powered beat. “You Don’t See Me” gets a straight ahead Gypsy swing treatment, and the woozy ballad “Because” turns into a brisk Gypsy jazz sprint.

“We try to keep the kaleidoscope spinning so you don’t know what’s coming next,” Mehling says. “With so many Gypsy jazz records, it’s like okay, we get it! You’re a genius. You can play really fast. We’re looking to create an album that can be played repeatedly.”

One reason why the album works so well is that the HCSF is a busy ensemble with thousands of gigs under their belts together. A member of the HCSF since 1998, violinist Evan Price is a highly versatile player who earned top honors as a U.S. Scottish Fiddling Champion before performing with a hot-fiddle who’s who including Stephane Grappelli, Johnny Frigo, Claude “Fiddler” Williams, Johnny Gimble, and Vassar Clements. He spent 10 years in the creative crucible of the seminal Turtle Island String Quartet, touring internationally, collaborating with jazz luminaries like Cuban clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, and pianists Dr. Billy Taylor and Kenny Barron and earning two Grammy Awards for the albums Four + 4 and A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane (both on Telarc).

Based in the Bay Area since 2004, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Isabelle Fontaine was born and raised in the French countryside, where she absorbed the voices of Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, and Yves Montand. A natural talent, she spent two decades touring southwest Europe playing drums in a jump blues combo, which led to her love of 1930s swing and the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli and the Quintette du Hot Club de France. It wasn’t long before she picked up the guitar and applied her impeccable sense of rhythm to the instrument.

Fresno-native Sam Rocha has worked professionally as a bassist since high school. While largely self-taught, he’s deeply versed in the instrument’s lineage, from “Pops” Foster, Milt Hinton, and Bob Haggart to Jimmy Blanton, Ray Brown, and Scott LaFaro. In addition to his mastery of the bass, Rocha has absorbed the nuances of classic jazz tuba, cornet, and guitar, performing regularly on those instruments as well. And guitarist Jordan Samuels, the most recent addition to the HCSF, is also one the busiest young players on the Bay Area scene. Since finishing his degree in composition and jazz studies at San Francisco State in 2010, he’s performed regularly with HCSF, Erik Jekabson’s Electric Squeezbox Orchestra, and his own trio Certified Organic, while performing with Bay Area masters such as Paula West, Wil Blades, Smith Dobson, Adam Theis, and Matt Clark.

Mehling traces his musical journey back to an epiphany at six years old, when he saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan “and it was like getting hit by lightening,” he recalls. “I wanna do that - make the girls scream and give people the buzz I get from hearing the music.” In his teenage years he played in rock bands, but gravitated more toward acoustic guitar and started studying classical music “but that wasn’t what I wanted either,” he says. “Then I heard Django’s Hot Club of France: three guitars, bass, and violin and they sounded and acted like a rock band. I saw pictures of them and they looked sharp, sophisticated and mysterious.”

He spent his early years as a professional musician playing traditional New Orleans jazz on banjo and guitar, but didn’t think of trying to master Django’s music until traveling in Europe in the early 1980s and hearing guitarist Fapy Lafertin with the Belgian Gypsy jazz combo WASO. Combined with the inspiration from two visionary Bay Area ensembles known for drawing deeply from the Hot Club sound—Dan Hicks & his Hot Licks and the David Grisman “dawg music” Quintet—he honed his Django repertoire, and ended up landing a gig as lead guitarist with Dan Hicks’ Acoustic Warriors from 1985-1990, a highlight of which was their 1989 appearance on Austin City Limits.

Mehling launched the Hot Club of San Francisco in 1991, spearheading the American Gypsy jazz movement with countless concerts and a series of critically hailed albums, including 1999’s Lady in Red (Clarity) featuring Maria Muldaur, Dan Hicks, and jazz/blues vocal legend Barbara Dane. In 2000, the HCSF became the first American band invited to play the Festival de Jazz Django Reinhardt in Samois-Sur-Seine, ground zero for the ongoing Django revival. Over the years the band has featured a glittering array of talent, including guitarists Adam Levy, Josh Workman, Sam Miltich, fiddlers Jenny Scheinman and Olivier Manchon, and bassists Joe Kyle and Clint Baker.

Though the present lineup has been in place for more than five years, creating John, Paul, George and Django put the band’s copacetic chemistry to the test. “It was very contentious, especially the arranging,” Mehling admits. “Everybody’s got really strong feelings about the Beatles. But I’ve had the band almost 30 years and Evan’s been in it almost 18. We’re all still friends and we worked it out! It took a long time to settle in on the program and then polish the arrangements. We’ve already got a list for volume 2!”

A preview of our commissioned piece to be debuted on June 28 at Stern Grove

A preview of our commissioned piece to be debuted on June 28 at Stern Grove

Jazz Club or Outdoor Park, Hot Club of San Francisco Welcomes All

What words come to mind when imagining Stern Grove Festival? For Hot Club of San Francisco, the words “beautiful, outdoors, open, clean, and fresh” inspired their most recent song, crafted for the Stern Grove Festival stage as part of the “Interplay” commission series. Vocalist and guitarist Paul Mehling of this local gypsy jazz band shared with us the challenging process of translating these words into a sound that evokes the unique experience of being “In Concert with Nature” at Stern Grove.

“Using the copious amount of time we spend in rented vans while on tour together, we managed to brainstorm some ideas that were almost unanimously agreeable to all of us, which we then slowly molded into the song’s now ‘finished’ state,” says Mehling of their newest song, “Groovin at the Old Stern Grove”.

Hot Club understands, but embraces the challenges in working with the environment of a concert space, whether it is a jazz club, on the street, a full stage, or among towering eucalyptus trees. Not every band can adapt their sound to the claps of a crowded jazz hall and keep up with the rhythm of the wind blowing through 100-foot trees, but Hot Club looks forward to the environment of Stern Grove advancing their sound.

Mehling feels that the quintet is uniquely aware and involved with the environment of a venue. “Since our goal is to somehow reach and touch our audience, we need to be acutely in tune with our environment and how best to circumvent any blockages which might preclude us from connecting with listeners.” This could be something mechanical (like sound system issues), something personal (a broken heart), or something out of their control, like fans unfamiliar with their style of music.


Gypsy jazz, which promotes the swinging sounds made popular by guitarist Jean “Django” Reinhardt in 1930s Paris, carries a welcoming aura in each twang and pick of a guitar. Fans are drawn in by its lively rhythm, and Mehling and the crew take the next step in treating each audience member as a friend that they haven’t yet met. “While audiences may or may not be familiar with us, or our genre of music, we hope to establish an interplay and connection with them that they won’t find anywhere else, and which will stay with them.”

The five members of Hot Club take being San Franciscans—and the area’s influences and long list of contributions to the evolution of jazz—very seriously. These ties are evident while listening to their new song, where nods are given to local insider jokes like “vegan/pagan hipsters” and “high-tech chief execs” grooving together at everyone’s favorite urban getaway, Stern Grove.

Mehling says he and the rest of Hot Club feel a huge sense of indebtedness to the people in the Bay Area jazz scene that they’ve learned from, been inspired by, and have been a part of for more than 27 years. “We are extremely proud to not only be a part of this artistic tapestry, but we see our role in preserving and pushing it forward as an integral part of our purpose.”

Here’s to looking forward to years, decades, and centuries of more artists promoting their craft at Stern Grove Festival! If you’d like to hear Hot Club of San Francisco perform “Groovin at the Old Stern Grove” and more, come watch them at Stern Grove Festival this Sunday, June 28 when they open for one of America’s favorite lyricists, Randy Newman. The show kicks off at 2 p.m.

Great review from our Sarasota, FL show last weekend

Great review from our Sarasota, FL show last weekend

REVIEW: Hot sound, strange visuals

By Carrie Seidman, Herald-Tribune

Though we often tune it out in deference to our focus on the screen, a great soundtrack can amplify and augment a film, adding to the dramatic action, setting a mood or signalling an impending disaster. In the days of silent film, that aural experience was often supplied by a live pianist, playing improvisationally for lack of any libretto.

That's the idea behind Hot Club of San Francisco's "Cinema Vivant" show, the latest in the Ringling Museum's New Stages series. The five members of this West Coast-based group — Paul Mehling (lead guitar), Evan Price (violin), Sam Rocha (bass), Jeff Magidson (rhythm guitar) and Isabelle Fontaine (rhythm guitar and vocals) — play what's known as "gypsy jazz" against a backdrop of some of the earliest stop action animated films that still exist.

Performing in the museum's Historic Asolo Theatre, this combination of sights, sounds and surroundings made for a vibrant evening of near sensory-overload.

Mehling, a silver-haired, earringed showman with a Cheshire Cat smile, founded the ensemble in 1991 (some of the members have since changed) to preserve and promote the sound of the pioneering Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli's Hot Club de France of the 1930s. Also known as jazz manouche after its French origins, the instrumentation is entirely acoustic and stringed, with no percussion or horns. (Rocha did pull out a muted trumpet for one brief interlude.)

A blend of classic Spanish guitar, bluegrass rhythms and fast swing, the style requires a demanding technical facility — strumming, plucking and involved fret work — that evolved from Reinhardt's adaptation to an hand injury. These consummate musicians have mastered its challenges, particularly Mehling, who must by now have fingertips that resemble the tough leather of an old boot.

Just as intriguing — and certainly more bizarre — were the three accompanying films, created in a cinematic time before sound, color or special effects.

The first, "There It Is," was a slapstick story of a bumbling Scottish detective in the Buster Keaton mode trying to solve the mystery of the "Fuzz Faced Phantom," aided by his furry bug-like sidekick, MacGregor. Written and directed by one of cinema's earliest geniuses, Charley Bowers (who plays the detective), it combines stop action animation of props with live action of humans so seamlessly that its creation without any of today's technological advances boggles the imagination.

The other two films, by Russian filmmaker Ladislaw Starewicz, were just as impressive, if even stranger. For "The Cameraman's Revenge" from 1912, Starewicz — an entomologist before he was a filmmaker — uses stop action shots of dead bugs (beetles, a grasshopper) to play out a tale of a husband and wife catching each other in romantic peccadillos. (According to Price, who took turns with Milling on intros, viewers of the '20s actually thought he'd taught the bugs to act.)

"The Mascot," from 1934 — after Starewicz and his wife had devoted themselves full-time to filmmaking and the creation of puppets to use as actors — is a tour de force of surrealism as a child's stuffed dog comes to life and interacts with a creepy cast that includes a skeletal pterodactyl and a beak-nosed Devil.

Needless to say, all of this was quite entertaining, but at the same time, rather distracting from the music, which on its own deserved more attention. The few songs the group played without cinematic accompaniment were some of my favorites, including the opening "Oriental Shuffle" (a Reinhardt/Grappelli standard) and "Buena Sera, Senorita," the closer, sung by Fontaine in her alluring French chanteuse style.

Mehling has admitted that the addition of the visuals has given the group entrée to venues more high-brow than the typical jazz clubs where they play in San Francisco — like the Ringling. But I wouldn't mind sitting in one of those nightclubs and giving my full attention to this unique, well-performed and rarely heard musical style.

Great Review from our show at FERST CENTER in Atlanta, GA

The Hot Club of San Francisco


WOW! You may never have heard of this incredible group; but once you have the privilege of attending one of their concerts you will never forget them.

A group of five stringed instrument players headed by Paul Mehling, who founded this group in 1991 in the Bay area. He is a great lover of jazz and gypsy styled music, especially the type played by Django Reinhardt. And he’s very much into the history and culture of the Romani people.

The group consists of Paul on guitar, Evan Price on violin, Sam Rocha on bass and Jeff Magidson and Isabelle Fontaine on rhythm guitars. They do excerpts of dozens of numbers including some by Django as well as some by Stéphane Grappelli who founded the Hot Club of France with Django in 1934.

Now, . . . what is so incredible is that they perform as the musical accompaniment to three incredible old black and white silent films, in what they present as Cinema Vivant. They play along to There it Is by Charley Bowers, who wrote, directed and acted in it as a goof-ball Scotland Yard inspector. It is hilarious, and you can find it on YouTube. I would seriously suggest that you do so and enjoy this short playful epic work.

The second half of the show presented two films by Ladislaw Starewicz. The Camerman’s Revenge is about a bug who is having an affair and he is bugged by another insect who films it and shows it off. This one dates from 1912. The later one is The Mascot and this 1933 work is like an antique version of a toy story.

The point is that we go to concerts with a somewhat narrow expectation of what we will hear, see and enjoy. And when you go to the HCSF you get so much more than you could possibly expect. Bottom line is this. If you see them coming back to town, get your tickets early. I promise you will enjoy.

Review of our Cinema Vivant tour (silent films accompanied by live gypsy jazz)

Review of our Cinema Vivant tour (silent films accompanied by live gypsy jazz)

Review: Hot Club of San Francisco's 'Cinema Vivant'

By Jim Morekis

While many folks were enjoying the Jazz Festival in the park Friday night, a smaller but just as enthused audience was enjoying the unique music/movie combo of the Hot Club of San Francisco's "Cinema Vivant" performance at the Lucas.

It's name a self-conscious reference to the legendary Hot Club of France, this West Coast ensemble indeed opened the show with a three-song homage to Django Reinhardt, godfather of the gypsy jazz genre and original Hot Club co-founder. Lead guitarist Paul Mehling is the main spokesman for the group and effortlessly commands the full range of sound from his instrument.

The Stephane Grappelli to Mehling's Django, violinist Eric Price was perhaps the true star of the show. His tasteful, versatile fiddling, even more than the Reinhardt-style guitar, carries the melodic load and lends that particular gypsy flair to the proceedings.

While the music was most enjoyable in and of itself, the main point of this show was to hear those vintage gypsy sounds accompanying a series of rare and altogether delightful classic silent films from roughly the same Django Reinhardt era.

The first film - and probably the audience favorite - was There It Is, a classic commingling of some of the key artistic elements of the late 1920s and 1930s, a time of enormous cultural fertility happening amidst the great global upheaval at the same time.

There It Is, made in 1928, combines surrealism and slapstick in the tale of a stereotypical Scottish detective (played by silent cinema renaissance man Charlie Bowers) attempting to solve the mystery of the "Fuzz-Faced Phantom," aided by his furry, insect-like companion MacGregor.

During a time of what we would consider drastically limited technical options in terms of special effects, director Harold Muller and technical wizard Bowers create a series of small cinematic miracles, mostly relying on an early form of stop-motion animation. We see wagons teleporting through walls, telephones that behave like dancing cobras, and - so help me - what looks like an early version of the famous "bullet time" slow-mo fight scenes from The Matrix.

What is perhaps most impressive, however, is that all these special effects seamlessly blend human action with the stop-motion of the various props involved. Quite simply, these filmmakers were geniuses.

The second half of the show comprised two films from the very early 1900s by Russian filmmaker Ladislaw Starewicz, who is often credited with inventing stop-motion animation. The Cameraman's Revenge very nearly defies description, but here goes: A troubled marriage comes to a head when the husband gets involved with a dancer and his neglected wife falls for an artist.

The catch is: All the characters are insects.

Real insects. As in, Starewicz painstakingly manipulated the actual bodies of dead bugs, frame by excruciating frame, to create this story of jealousy and betrayal.

Apparently the use of stop-motion animation - not to mention the use of real insects - was so bizarre for audiences of the time that many people preferred to believe that Starewicz taught live bugs to act. Given the complexities that must have been involved in making the film, I'm not sure which approach would actually be more difficult.

The final film, The Mascot, was unfortunately the weakest of the evening. A frankly creepy dark fantasy about a child's toy puppy come to life, it went on too long for my taste. Fortunately I found myself really enjoying the accompanying music by the Hot Club of San Francisco, and gained enormous respect for their abilities and musical sensitivity in being able to bring the film's action to aural life with their empathic, perfectly timed accompaniment.