Friday (Sept. 30), 7-9pm, Moana Bakery & Cafe
(71 Baldwin Ave., Paia); free
Every Saturday, 4-6pm, South Shore Tiki Lounge
(1913 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei); free
Every Tuesday, 4-6pm, Stella Blues Cafe
(1279 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei); free
Isn’t it glorious the way our lives have soundtracks? The music that moves us inflects tone to our timeline, evoking memories–and inspiring them. For me, gypsy jazz is a genre that’s cast a bright but moody light on many of my ambling adventures; and I (as loads of Mauians can assuredly relate) have no one but Tom Conway to thank for the introduction.
See, Conway’s a six string sensei extraordinaire (well-connected in the challenging, oft-closed niche genre of gypsy jazz–but more on that later), and back in the day he was kind enough to indulge my early teen dream of axe wielding (a path that every pimply, extra-awkward tomboy presumably undertakes). During one lesson he excitedly gave me a burnt CD of some cover tunes he’d recorded, and carefully penned in blue ballpoint, it was simply titled Hot Gypsy Nights.
Later at home, I popped the unassuming CD in my bulky player; and never having heard anything like it, I was suddenly swept away. “Hot” though it may be, every rapid note dripped like a quick drizzle in a thick indigo eve, flavored like aromatic woods flung into a campfire–pacific and pyrotechnic all at once. I therein learned of Djgango Reinhardt, the virtuoso credited as the progenitor of the genre (which is also sometimes called hot jazz)–which all made me feel very cool and in-the-know when I started recognizing the style on NPR interludes and, years later, when I saw the fantastic flick Sweet and Lowdown (directed by Woody Allen and starring Sean Penn), a wittily fictional comedy about a six stringer named Emmet Ray who idolizes Reinhardt and enjoys shooting rats at the dump.
“Back then, before you could download all this music on the Internet, the only way to get this gypsy jazz stuff was through [personal connections],” Conway explained in a recent interview. And Conway’s connections are as solid as his chops. He credits a dear (now sadly deceased) friend Mary Honcoop, who hails from the Netherlands and “who the gypsies really accepted into her world even though she was not a gypsy [and] who championed a group called the Rosenberg Trio, which is probably the most famous modern gypsy jazz group.” Through Honcoop, he got a lot of the genre that wasn’t then available in the America.
Conway sent Honcoop Hot Gypsy Nights, too, and says, “She told me, ‘OK, I can hear you play the style really well–especially for an American (because there weren’t many Americans playing the style at all)–but now, who are you?’”
Conways next album, No Fixed Address was his reply to Honcoop’s inspiring call to action—and included thirteen all-original, progressively avant garde gypsy jazz tunes. His latest, “El Tigre” (titled from the nickname his father long called him), includes 16 more original songs–plus a track recorded in Texas with and at the behest of Willie Nelson–that are more palatable to the pedestrian gypsy jazz-dabbler, though no less enthralling.
When pressed to describe El Tigre as a flavor, his swift-as-his-licks smarts show when he replies, “Tiramisu: with a heavy bottom and a light top. I use a lot of open tuning on this album, and the way I structure some of the chords–playing the same chord, but on a different track–there’s a really nasty, sledgehammer sound while layered on top it’s very airy and ethereal.”
The effect is indeed deep and mercurial, and I find tracks like “Five Corners” and “Sign of the Mermaid” (the album’s only ballad) are rich and overwhelmingly cinematic–the kind of songs that any film or HBO series producer would be wise to license.
“I’ve never played guitar better than I do on [El Tigre],” says Conway (which says a lot). “And I think when I look back on this album in the future, I might say it was the best I’ve ever played in my life.”
Satisfied though he may be, there’s no rest for wicked guitarists, and Conway’s already deep into writing and recording his next project. While gypsy jazz is a passion, versatility’s always been the name of his game, and he describes his forthcoming album as a total divergence, for him, into powerful pop rock.
And speaking of CDs, Conway’s work, El Tigre included, is available via all the usual avenues: on his website tomcowayguitar.com, plus iTunes, CD Baby and the like. But the best way to get hip to his nonpareil style is to catch him at his live gigs (regularly at South Shore Tiki Lounge on Saturdays and Tuesdays at Stella Blues Cafe; plus debuting at Moana Bakery & Cafe this Friday), or more immersive still, sign up for lessons–all sure to inspire you as he has inspired me.