The Jim Pagel Trio • Archeologists of Gypsy Jazz

Best Small Jazz Combo • Best Jazz Instrumentalist – Todd Bethune

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music, Artist Feature, Review Music Awards,   From Issue 809   By: Robert E Martin

30th April, 2015     0

One of the more noticeable surprises at the 29th Annual Review Music Awards was the escalated attention given to the Jazz categories by the voting public this year, which surpassed that of Country music for the first time in over a decade. 

Coupled with the selection of The Jim Pagel Trio as Best Small Jazz Combo – the only other group besides Barbarossa to displace such long respected artists as Brush Street (whom have carried the honor of that title for two decades) – both of these factors give solid indication that the winds of change are blowing a fresh appreciation for the idiom of Jazz from younger generations.

Consisting of guitarist and group founder Jim Pagel, rhythm guitarist Todd Bethune (who also walked away with the honor of Best Jazz Instrumentalist at the 29th RMA’s) and bassist Sean Drysdale (best known for his work with The Banana Convention) this seemingly incongruous collective of talent are undeniably united together by an equally shared appreciation, enthusiasm, passion, and vision for what is known as Gypsy Jazz – a sound largely shaped by the visionary guitarist Django Reinhardt that uses acoustic aural tapestries and instrumental precision to convey deeper emotional power into melody lines than lyrics alone can convey.

The more we sat and chatted, the more I realized it is safe to say that The Jim Pagel Trio are bound together as musical archaeologists eager to share the joy & power of their new discoveries with audiences as they are bound by their high standards of musicianship – another factor that makes them special.

“I’m the mastermind behind this endeavor,” confessions group founder Pagel. “I became a fan of Gypsy Jazz guitar music and started playing it about seven years ago because it was so attractive.  Back in the summer of 2013 I spent a whole month in July visiting Asia and brought my guitar with me. I thought this would be a good time to start tackling Django Reinhardt music and they Gypsy Jazz style.”

After spending an entire month learning one of Reinhardt’s songs, when he returned from Asia Jim says that he reached out to a few world-class guitarists on facebook and asked if they could teach him the Gypsy Jazz style of guitar playing.

“I hooked up lessons with this fellow named Robin Nolan out of Amsterdam,” continues Pagel. “He’s one of the most respected Gypsy Jazz guitarists in the world and used to be a street performer. George Harrison of The Beatles had a gardener that was passing by Nolan one day and bought his cassette for George, and George called him up and asked him to perform at his house parties, so they got to know one another well and he also played at George’s funeral.”

“Last February I was able to bring him here for a concert at The State Theatre that was very well received,” explains Jim. “Gypsy Jazz is one of those styles that take us on a journey that is not touched upon or performed in this area as much as it needs to be.  So as a band one of our goals is to show Mid-Michigan other types of music that are out there that are refreshing and new.”

Performed on acoustic guitars and a stand-up bass and not hiding or standing behind any effects, the group says that the attraction of Gypsy Jazz is how it’s simple and honest; just notes, heart & soul.

For those unfamiliar with Reinhardt, Todd offers a brief history lesson. “Django was living in Paris during the WWII Nazi occupation and developed this style of jazz along with Stephane Grappelli where the defining characteristics were rhythm guitar and no drummer, with the rhythm guitar holding the backbeat that helps drive everything.  With our band, Sean usually does a walking bass and Jim is flying all over on melody lines.”

“The great thing with Gypsy Jazz is that it tells a history,” chimes in Sean. “It’s really hard to throw a dart on the map and say that makes sense to me, but Django brought in the idea of the accentuated standard. Instead of playing a melody, you’re going to rip it up. Even for that time period it wasn’t prevalent. The heart and soul of it is the French Waltz – that ¾ waltz beat. You ca dance to it, but people don’t dance to a 6th beat knowingly, however they will naturally. So it’s really an amalgamation of the French Waltz but with Latin feels and lots of tri-tones. Portuguese music was very prevalent going into France and there were an amazing amount of players traveling in that chaotic world making it happen.”

When asked what distinguishes Gypsy Jazz from other more popular forms of music, Jim references the word ‘refreshing.’ “Being a teacher and performer for 30 years I was looking for something to pursuer on a personal level and didn’t know it would take off so soon and that I would be able to get these two talented and awesome people to jump on the team. I feel blessed for them because it’s equally challenging, fun and familiar. I get up early and go to bed late because I want the guitar in my hands.”

“It’s almost like Pop music,” adds Sean, “because it needs a melody and a hook. Most Gypsy Jazz has an A melody and a B melody and a hook in all those tunes, so it seems recognizable. I get to do a lot of walking around on the bass, so as a bass player it’s a lot of fun. But I have to keep it together and structured because Jim is flying around on lead and Todd is tapping out the rhythm.”

Together since the fall of 2013, Jim says that from his own enthusiasm with Gypsy Jazz and his proficiency with it evolved, he wanted to pull Sean and Todd into the fold. “I’d been a music teacher for 27 years and performing for almost 30, and Todd was one of my old students from 20 years ago who became quite a guitarist and teacher in his own right.  Sean plays in my band with Honesty & the Liars and is a great guy to get along with. Both are very dependable and I like to surround myself with high quality people and talent.”

Things moved fast for the group once they converged. After learning enough tunes to perform a show within one week, they had their first gig in December of 2013 and then in February played a showcase gig with the best Gypsy Jazz guitarist in the world.

“It was so exciting to be part of that entire experience with Nolan that my gears started working on how to pull off another major concert,” continues Jim. “Another world class player from a different country that people around this area don’t hear is Joscho Steffan from Germany. He is an incredible technician and came in September for a show we did at Fischer Hall in Frankenmuth.

And things have snowballed from there. In the last month the group has been approached by at least five restaurants and numerous weddings that want to feature live jazz.  “We’ve got 15 jazz gigs in the next few months, so things are really blossoming,” notes Jim.

“I think there is a renaissance going on for Jazz appreciation in this area,” reflects Todd. “It can be polarizing because it’s a lofty music, but people are starving for exposure to new things. Presently we are playing at Beamers in Birch Run, which is a restaurant that opened 18 months ago that is pushing the jazz scene on N. Gera Road; and then we’ve playing at Brooklyn Boyz in Bay City, and we will also start performing at The Bancroft Wine & Martini Bar one Sunday each month beginning May 17th.”

Additionally the trio will be headlining a Gypsy Jazz show at The Dark House Arts Studio, 1600 Woodside, on June 4th at 7 PM. “We’ll provide wine and high-end beer and gourmet hors-d’ouerves and two hours of us playing Gypsy Jazz. We have a friend with an old church that converted it and plan on decorating the stage and making it look very ‘Frenchy’,” smiles Jim.

Musically their typical set includes a handful of Django tunes along with a handful of standards that Gypsy Jazz artist perform that the group puts their own stamp upon. “We also do a few covers such as ‘Careless Whisper’ by Wham/George Michael, only do a Spanish Flamingo version of it, as well as swing version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” adds Jim.

“We perform a version of Fly Me to the Moon that has a great swing to it. The bass is more walking than the original, but it doesn’t trample the melody,” notes Sean. “And I also love our version of All of Me, plus we do two of our originals.”

“Both Sean and Jim are fantastic musicians to work with,” concludes Todd. “I had Classic Graffitti back in the day ten years ago and enjoy involving myself in non-mail stream music that can draw attention.  It makes life more exciting.  Jim is such a strong melody driven guitarist that it makes the job easy for me and Sean.”

“It’s an honor for me to perform with Jim,” reflects Sean. “I remember being a young kid and riding my bike to shows and never ran into Jim or any of the outfits he played with, but I heard his name repeatedly over the years. Then I got a call from Honesty asking if I would like to do some gigs and asked her who the guitar player was and she said Jim Pagel. I thought, ‘Cool – I’ll finally get a chance to meet him’ And one thing I’m taking away from this project is that the area is lucky to have a guy like Jim. Not only because he can whip and fly on a guitar, but because he’s a guy that looks you in the eye, shakes your hand, and you know he means it. Jim is nice almost to a fault and this area does not have people that are as courteous and respectful as Jim. That is a very rare quality.”

“I couldn’t ask for anything better,” he concludes. “When you can take a group of strangers and bring down the conversation with the music you are performing and get them listening to you perform a style of music they are unfamiliar with, you’ve controlled the emotion of an entire room of people.  I don’t care about traveling the country or going overseas, because how often does that happen?  When a guy goes ‘Hey, I don’t need that shot – what I’m experiencing here is enough, I will take that moment and that experience any day of the week.”

The Jim Pagel Trio will have their first recording completed sometime in late June. Check out their facebook page for upcoming shows and dates.


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