For Elana James, former violinist for Hot Club Of Cowtown, the many facets of this music are by now probably second nature. Drawing together the intensity of Reinhardt and Grappelli’s Gypsy jazz and the slippery sixth chord harmony of western swing, HCOC covered a lot of ground before calling it quits in 2004. This left James open for whatever opportunity might’ve knocked, and when it did, Bob Dylan was on the other side of the door. How’s that for luck?
James’ solo album is a mercurial listening experience, shifting between nostalgic reverence for its roots and a youthful need to tweak things a little. The opening track comes out, well, swinging, and her violin is in top form — a warm, woody marvel winding through a forest of thumping piano and guitar. Her vocals throughout the CD maintain a coy sense of humor and intimacy, but what you really hear is a distinct, instantly recognizable personality.
But then, after James and the band vault their way through the traditional “Goodbye Liza Jane,” you stumble into a hazy, exquisite dream. “All The World And I” takes about as sharp a left-turn as you could expect, a gentle wash of Appalachian melody that’s so hypnotic you almost forget to catch the quirky little harmonies James layers under her vocals as in the last line of the chorus goes “... across the ocean wide.” Lovely. In contrast to the rest of the music collected here, this song is quite an anomaly — slow and simple, reliant more on layers and repetition than frenetic movement and ornamentation. Which is exactly why it’s one of the finest tunes on the record.
Though the majority of the album floats around that swinging “comfort zone,” it never loses momentum, and the playing all round is so confident and perfectly placed there’s always something happening that perks your ears, like the purring violin beneath the piano solo in “Oh, Baby” or the playful duel between James and Johnny Gimble on “Silver Bells.”
The guitar work of Dave Biller and Luke Hill is inventive and impeccable at every turn, whether chopping out chords on a Selmer/Maccafferri one minute or stringing sixteenth notes on a jazzbox the next. Check out Biller’s ten seconds of guitar bliss on “Down The Line” for a lesson in making a statement quick and to the point without sacrificing an ounce of musicality.
What Elana James does best is what you’ll find on the greater part of this album, but what really seems to make an impression are the songs that allow her to stray outside the margins — the ethereal “All The World And I” and her take on Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” in particular.
It’s certainly not another “fad/revival” album. James makes music that pays homage to the places it came from but lets you know with a wink that it could go anywhere at any time, so you’d best pay attention.