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A New Record By Kansas City 'Gypsy Jazz' Duo Helps Clear Mental Storm Clouds

Courtesy A La Mode
A La Mode

A La Mode
C’est Si Bon

Gypsy jazz — or, probably more appropriately, Django jazz — is a booming style in Kansas City.

This sub-genre, built around the silky runs and inimitable swing of guitarist Django Reinhardt in the same way bluegrass grew around Bill Monroe’s mandolin, pops up periodically around the world, and now it’s our turn.

It’s possible to go out for gypsy jazz two or three nights a week here, whether it’s Victor and Penny or the Hot Club of Kansas City, or Ensemble Iberica traveling straight to the music’s Romany roots, or, this winter, A La Mode's new release C’est Si Bon.

Literally translated, “a la mode” has nothing to do with ice cream. The Kansas City-friendly English translation is “up to date,” and this duo, who met years ago at Jardine’s, keeps a pre-World War II genre relevant.

Vocalist Jesica “Baby J” Poell, who studied classical voice, adds a soulful edge to every lyric, whether in English (“Diga Diga Doo”) or French (their version of “Autumn Leaves,” among others). Guitarist Clayton De Long’s love of Django is obvious, but there’s more than a splash of Wes Montgomery in his sound, as well as his own distinct touches.

While A La Mode plays standards, with the attendant risk of blurring into a lovely but too-worn sound, their music never fades into the background. When Poell sings “Cry Me A River,” or “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” her vocals recover the songwriters’ heartfelt stories of lovers wronged. It’s tough to sound singular while covering a tune identified with Ella Fitzgerald (“When I Get Low, I Get High”) or Eartha Kitt (“C’est Si Bon”), but Poell reclaims each standard as a song.

DeLong’s guitar, smooth but never too slick, is a joy, too. His percussively fluid line surrounding Poell’s vocal on “Angel Eyes” buoys her voice perfectly, and when he takes a solo, his melody sounds like another human voice. His extended solo on the Nat King Cole standard “Nature Boy” is a surprisingly gritty take on Django’s swing. (Not coincidentally, DeLong also plays lead guitar in the local country band River Town.)

The musicians supporting Poell and DeLong on C’est Si Bon give the group’s sound Hot Club of Paris proportions. On “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” for instance, violinist Marvin Gruenbaum and bassist Steve Rigazzi’s breaks lay out space for the music to take playful — and entrancing — departures from the well-worn patterns of American standards. (Django definitely understood this, covering songs like “Honeysuckle Rose” long before Willie Nelson took a crack at them). And Miguel “Mambo” DeLeon’s Latin percussion on “Nature Boy” (and throughout the CD) shows that the group is by no means limited to just one style.

Few genres blow away mental storm clouds as well as gypsy jazz, which is undoubtedly part of what makes the music so popular right now. With C’est Si Bon, A La Mode shows how good that can feel.

KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.

Mike Warren began as editorial assistant at The Pitch in Kansas City more than 20 years ago, and he's been writing about local music ever since. In addition to teaching writing at Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods, he still writes for The Pitch and a variety of national publications, including No Depression.
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