In the Paris of the 1930s, the Quintette du Hot Club de France was all the rage. The band played gypsy jazz music, swinging and free-spirited, and its leaders, Belgian-born guitarist Django Reinhardt and French violinist Stephane Grappelli, became legends in their time.
All these years later, both men are long gone, but the legend remains. As does the music.
Paul Mehling, the founding guitarist of the Hot Club of San Francisco, started as a violinist, but fell under the spell of Django and his fleet-fingered "jazz manouche" guitar while still in his 20s (and that was quite a few years ago).
Mehling and company pay a return visit to Savannah Sept. 23 with a program similar to the one they brought here in 2009. The program for Cinema Vivant goes like this: For the first half, the group will play a concert of gypsy jazz - classic, Django-era material, some newer stuff and a few tunes of their own.
Then they'll provide live accompaniment to three vintage silent films, one of which, Ladislaw Starewicz's 1912 short The Cameraman's Revenge, is one of the first known examples of stop-motion animation.
You've often said your desire is to bring gypsy jazz music into the present and the future. Can you explain what you mean?
Paul Mehling: The actual mission statement of the band is to preserve the memory and music of Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France. But we don't want to be like preservationists necessarily, because there's no fun in that unless you're a real gypsy or you have some stake in it. It's the same kind of deal when I play regular jazz, New Orleans music: I want people to feel like this music isn't just history. It's not something under glass in a dusty museum, it's contemporary in its own way. Especially when it's live, right in front of you.
Why does gypsy jazz work so well with these silent films?
Paul Mehling: The easiest answer is that two of these three films are from a Russian director. But the longer of the two, he was living in Paris when he created the film. And there are scenes of Paris in the film. And that's just a no-brainer, right there. The other thing is, these films are quirky, and odd, and yet kind of familiar. And people have said that about our music, too. And with the Charley Bowers film, we kind of changed our aesthetic - instead of not following the movie exactly with sound effects, we decided to go for it. Because it's chock-full of opportunities for sound effects; we actually use music as sound effects. And I know that sounds weird, and you might not even notice it if you come to the show. It's a subtle trick, but it's a trick. And I think we're pulling it off.
How precise do you have to be? Are you watching the screen the whole time?
Paul Mehling: We rehearse like crazy so that we're good at this. The other film show, that we toured for about seven years, and we got really good at not just memorizing the films, but feeling the films - the little subtleties. You kind of get inside the director's mind. Silent films were kind of made with that in mind, that there would be a million different accompaniments. Because these films would come to a theater, and whoever the musicians were in that particular theater would accompany the film. So the director has to give up a little bit of control on that front. And musicians 100 years later accompanying their film, that's something I'm sure they never thought of.
OK, so The Cameraman's Revenge is a stop-motion animation film about beetles ...
Paul Mehling: Yeah, this guy Ladislaw Starewicz started as an entymologist. He just loved bugs, but he couldn't get them to sit still long enough to photograph them. So he had to kill them to photograph them. And then he thought, how fun it might be to try to animate them. And when the film came out, animation was no new that some audiences couldn't believe it. It was easier for them to believe that he had trained bugs to do all this stuff like ride bicycles and have fight scenes. They couldn't wrap their minds around it.
Hot Club of San Francisco: Cinema Vivant
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23
Tickets: $20-$34 ($10 with SCAD ID)
Artist's website: hcsf.com