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Paul Mehling swings Gypsy jazz from the Golden Gate.
Paul Mehling was on the bandstand with Dan Hicks & the Acoustic Warriors and about to launch into a speedy instrumental he had written for the group. “I’m about to count it off and the violin player [Paul Godchaux] says to me under his breath, ‘Don’t count it off too fast,’” the guitarist recalls during a recent phone interview from his home in San Francisco. “And I leaned over to him and said, ‘Don’t panic.’ And Dan says, ‘There’s the title.’ We had been calling it ‘Blue Fromage,’ or something silly.”
More than 30 years later, the frenetic “Don’t Panic” kicks off the album of the same name by Mehling’s Gypsy-jazz-inspired Hot Club of San Francisco. Comprising tunes from the Hot Club’s 2002 release Veronica, as well as four new tracks, the (download-only) album has been issued by Panda Digital. It was a pleasant surprise for Mehling, who composed all the music. “I haven’t heard some of these tracks in 20 years, so it’s a thrill,” he says. “I’m really hoping that people will not only enjoy the musicianship, but also the craft of the songwriting. It’s kind of a nice pastiche. I’m proud of it.”
Born in Denver and raised in the Silicon Valley, Mehling, 64, grew up listening to his father’s records. Among the 78s were titles by Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France, which caught his ear with their irresistible rhythms and the virtuoso playing of guitarist Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli. He was also fascinated with The Beatles, but returned to Dad’s collection after the group broke up. Looking for guitar music, he rediscovered Django. “I said, ‘Wow, this sounds like rock ’n’ roll in a lot of ways,” he says.
Still, guitar played second fiddle to violin for Mehling until a fateful bicycle trip through Europe in 1981. That’s when he heard the Belgian Gypsy jazz band Waso. “When you think you love something and you want to try to do it, until you actually see someone else doing it, it just seems like this unknowable, uncrackable mystery,” he says. “And just seeing this guy [Jean “Fapy” Lafertin], it all came together for me. I thought, ‘I gotta stop screwin’ around with the violin and get serious about the guitar.’ It was exactly what I wanted to be doing.”
While playing with Hicks, Mehling realized the magnetic pull of the music he loved. Each night, the band would start the show with a cooking instrumental just to quiet chatty audiences. With two acoustic guitars, violin and bass, he notes, it sounded like Django. “It was like magic. A hush would go through the crowd,” he says. “There was something rare at that time about that sound, something just really organic. It sounds familiar, it’s slightly nostalgic. And I was like, ‘This music has more power than I thought.’”
Mehling started Hot Club of San Francisco in 1990, certainly inspired by Django, but not chained to his music. (In 2016, the band released an album of Beatles songs titled John, Paul, George and Django.) “We’re coming more from a traditional jazz swing point of view, where we’re not necessarily trying to play Gypsy jazz, but we’re trying to play jazz in a style that sounds like Django,” he says.
In San Francisco, the band plays under the moniker Le Jazz Hot, except when they perform as the Ivory Club Boys, a project dedicated to the music of jazz violinist Stuff Smith, whose band was called the Onyx Club Boys. Call it honesty in advertising. “We’re a bunch of white guys playing the music of a very, very obscure African American,” he says, mentioning that Hot Club violinist Evan Price expertly evinces Smith. “So we thought we should address the issue head-on.”
Not many bands enjoy the longevity of Hot Club of San Francisco, whose personnel has changed over the decades. (Its current lineup has been together for 10 years.) Attribute it to Mehling’s single-minded determination and belief in his sound. “I’ve kept this band going and kicked out records and kept interest going in not only the band but in Gypsy jazz,” he says. “And it’s kind of been a fun journey.” — Bob Weinberg
Photo by Joey Lusterman.