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The Lost Fingers take gypsy jazz to places it doesn't belong (review)

The Lost Fingers
Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival, Day 4
Dominion Chalmers United Church
Friday, February 13, 2015 – 9:30 p.m.

Around the end of the 1960s, as rock became preeminent and jazz started to decline in popularity, some record executives had the bright idea of making jazz vocalists more “with it” and “hip” by having them sing modern rock hits.

In 1970, Columbia Records president Clive Davis forced vocalist Tony Bennett to make an album called The Greatest Hits of Today. The story goes that Bennett was so upset at the choice of material that he actually vomited before the first recording session for the album. Reviews were not kind, particularly for the totally unsuitable "Little Green Apples".

Some rock and pop songs – particularly those with strong melodies – can be adapted into beautiful and intriguing jazz versions, but not all of them. So when I read the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival description of this show and realized that the Lost Fingers would be dedicating almost all the concert to gypsy jazz versions of rock, house, disco, and pop songs, a little warning light went on in my brain.

The concert itself was very professional and well-produced: lead vocalists Valérie Amyot and Byron Mikaloff introduced the songs and joked with the audience in a polished line of patter. There was never a dropped note nor missed cue in the show, as the quartet smoothly segued through the set list.

In his introduction, CBC announcer Laurence Wall noted that the group looked “spectacular”. Their costuming was certainly several cuts above your average jazz quartet – in tune with the sophisticated style of their show. Mikaloff, guitarist François Rioux, and double bassist Alex Morissette were dressed in matching double-breasted white silk suits, socks, and shoes, with black-and-white patterned ascots. Amyot was eye-catching in an electric blue lamé fitted fishtail-style gown, with a train, and matching blue lipstick and nail polish – an outfit that emphasized how well she shimmied across the stage.

It was a very retro, almost Los Vegas look which fitted the greatest-hits style of their show. Not their own greatest hits, to be clear, but a selection of pop and rock hits from the last fifty-odd years.

According to their website, the Lost Fingers play “pop/rock music classics performed in a Django gypsy jazz style with a hint of blue grass”. Gypsy Jazz, as popularized by Django Reinhardt and those who followed him, combines infectious guitar and double bass rhythms with popular music from the 1920s to 1940s: ballads, French chanson, American swing tunes, the occasional Latin number, and Django classics, all played at an extremely fast tempo with great energy and verve.

Thinking outside the box, there's no particular reason why more recent songs couldn't replace those classic gypsy jazz sources, but only if they have either a strong melody or a strong swinging rhythm, and preferably both. So when The Lost Fingers played “Tainted Love”, which was a 60s Motown number before Soft Cell made it an 80s dance hit, it actually worked – because of the song's memorable melody.

And, naturally, “Belleville Rendezvous”, the theme song from the movie The Triplets of Belleville, suited the quartet completely. They played it at a breakneck pace, upping the swing and emphasizing the joy, in one of the best versions I've heard. Amyot added multiple voices for different characters; Rioux ornamented the melody with fast, inflected guitar solos.

But the remainder of their set list was problematic. “Billie Jean” worked well enough, but the Michael Jackson number has been so over-exposed that I couldn't see the point of anyone ever singing it again. Amyot played kazoo very nicely on Deee-Lite's dance hit, "Groove Is in the Heart", but exactly what was the point of covering a song whose style had no relation to jazz or swing?

And those were the better choices. Many of the numbers had beats antithetical to gypsy jazz, or simply didn't swing – "Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega, "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk, “Died in your Arms Tonight” by Cutting Crew, “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi, "You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC/DC, or "Paradise City" by Guns N' Roses. I listened, and I listened, and I kept asking myself “WTF?”

What made it worse was that the group rushed through each song, allowing little time for stretching, ornamenting, or improvising around the music. Rioux could clearly play some fine gypsy-jazz style guitar but rarely had more than a few bars in which to solo; the group's vocal harmonies melded well, but they stuck strictly to the lyrics as written and didn't do anything special with them.

It felt like All-Hits Boomer Top 40 Radio – with guitars.

I was baffled. The Lost Fingers had some talented musicians. Why were they spending all this time and energy on covering tired old hits, and adding very little of their own to the music?

Ultimately, I found it a frustrating show, with some questionable artistic decisions, not the least of which was the encore: "Pump Up the Jam" by Technotronic.

The Lost Fingers received two standing ovations for their energetic 75-minute show – the first I'd seen at this year's winter jazzfest – and got a good section of the crowd standing up and dancing in place during the encore. The concert also attracted a wide range of listeners, with ages ranging from 20s to 80s.

But the clapping fans didn't include me, and I suspect they didn't include any hardcore gypsy jazz fans – if any had even lasted that long.

    – Alayne McGregor

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the 2015 Winter Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist. Therefore, we are unable to publish photos with the reviews.

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