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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Milwaukee’s Hot Club

The swinging sounds of strings

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The Glenn Asch & Chris Hanson Swingtet with Rae Cassidy is an unwieldy handle for a band performing in the gracious yet lively style of an earlier epoch. The Swingtet conjures up the music of the Hot Club de France, the delightfully swinging 1930s band led by violinist Stéphane Grappelli and guitarist Django Reinhardt. It’s spirited music for listening but doesn’t rudely intrude on conversations in bars or bistros. The Swingtet is an excellent choice for VIA Downer, which features them the first Monday of each month.

The Swingtet began in January, but its members have longer histories. Asch (violin) has been with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra since 1980 and also plays African styles with Jali Kunda and less definable music with the Jason Seed Stringtet. To go along with Milwaukee veteran Chris Hanson on guitar, John Parrott on guitar and Mike Britz on bass, the group recently added a regular singer, Rae Cassidy. Asch transcribed Grappelli’s solos from recordings while in college and says Hanson “has so much knowledge of the music of that time” that finding common ground was easy. Sidestepping the drum kit, the Swingtet is able to capture the sound of an age when rhythm didn’t depend on sticks on skin.

The musicians play in clear, bell-like tones with no distortion and in spry tempos. They know how to take a song from long ago and make it elastic—a beautiful thing you wish would never end. And yet it’s not a sequence of “look what I can do” solos, but rather an ensemble playing in accord with the songs. While performing “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “I Get a Kick Out of You” and other melodies Grappelli would have known, the Swingtet ventures beyond the 1930s, tapping bebop and rockabilly, the Beatles and the Allman Brothers for repertoire.

“The string [band] sound has an element of transparency,” Asch adds. “You can hear other sounds through the instruments while listening to the band. It’s not a wall of sound you can’t penetrate.”

The Glenn Asch & Chris Hanson Swingtet with Rae Cassidy performs 7 p.m. May 2 at VIA Downer, 2625 N. Downer Ave.