Madison is a far cry from the gypsy caravans of the Balkan peninsula, but the musical influence of the Roma people has been germinating in our town for quite some time. A major force behind this growth has been Harmonious Wail, a four-piece that's been making some of the country's best gypsy jazz -- a hybrid of conventional jazz and traditional Roma music -- for more than two decades.
Almost all of Harmonious Wail's music showcases their affection for Django Reinhardt, a pioneer of gypsy jazz known not only for songs such as "My Sweet," "Minor Swing" and "Nuages," but for his two-fingered guitar-playing style, which he developed after a fire ravaged much of his left hand.
While Reinhardt's compositions are favorites among many fans of jazz and roots music, they've also inspired guitarists to experiment with the way they approach their instruments. His injury was the motivation for his two-fingered solos, but Reinhardt thought about the guitar like a violinist from the get-go. Reinhardt began his musical training on the violin as a young child, then partnered with a talented violinist, Stéphane Grappelli, to form his band, Quintette du Hot Club de France.
Harmonious Wail's founder, Sims Delaney-Potthoff, approaches gypsy jazz from another perspective: that of a mandolinist. The mandolin combines aspects of both guitar and violin playing. It's held and strummed much like a guitar but has four strings that are typically tuned and fingered like those of a violin.
"[Historically,] gypsy jazz is primarily guitar and violin," he told JazzReview.com in a recent interview. "We've taken this influence and made it our own."
Delaney-Potthoff learned his instrument "from a mandolin approach to Django's music," he says. This approach had much to do with his mandolin teacher, Jethro Burns, another Reinhardt fanatic.
However, Reinhardt's not the only musician that's made the group swoon.
In "Joie de Vivre," the lead track from the group's new album Resist Temptation, the group takes their love of Reinhardt's Quinette du Hot Club de France and fuses it with their appreciation of other artists such as Tom Waits and The Velvet Underground. The result, interestingly enough, sounds like a blend of Badly Drawn Boy, Edith Piaf and Yann Tiersen's soundtrack to Amélie.
An MP3 of "Joie de Vivre" is available in the related downloads at right. More songs by the group can by listened to on its MySpace page, while Resist Temptation was recently reviewed in Isthmus by Rich Albertoni. Harmonious Wail celebrates the release of its new album with a performance on Friday, November 14 at the Concourse Hotel Bar.
MadTracks highlights and provides MP3s of songs performed by local musicians. All tracks here are provided with permission of the artist. If you are a musician based in the Madison metro area and are interested in sharing your work as a MadTrack, please send a message.