Interview with Gypsy Swing Guitarist Paul Mehling

by Don Mopsick

Paul Mehling

Paul Mehling. Photo courtesy the artist

San Francisco Bay Area guitarist Paul Mehling is a lifelong devotee of the music of the great 1930s Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Paul has been a featured guest several times on the Riverwalk Jazz radio series, both as a solo artist and leading his own group, the Hot Club of San Francisco.

I recently caught up with Paul Mehling by phone and captured his thoughts on a recent CD, Django and playing unplugged.

DM: How did you first become interested in the music of Django Reinhardt?

PM: Well, I grew up in a household with a record collector. My Dad was a talent-free music appreciator. He couldn’t whistle and he couldn’t sing. He used to bang on a chair and pretend he was Gene Krupa, according to my Mom. I was too little to really know this man, he left when I was two or three. But we always had records playing as an infant, and the story is that I would always be, you know, glued to the speakers in front of the hi-fi.

It's sort of like déjà vu for me to hear some stuff because I had such early imprinting. And Django Reinhardt was among some of the records that were in that collection. And then, when my Mom split, she left this guy, and she took like four or five LPs, one of which was a Reinhardt Hot Club of France record, and because we only had five LPs, we played them over and over again. I always gravitated toward the Django record, I don’t know why.

DM: So then, listening to that record brought you to the guitar, is that correct?

PM: Yeah. I’m of the generation that saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in ’64. I was probably six, but it hit me that I really wanted to do that. I walked around with a tennis racquet pretending to play it like a guitar, learning all the Beatles songs and liking having that effect on girls. Seeing them scream and throw themselves at you, I thought, “This is the life, this is my destiny here, I’m going to go after this.”

Little did I know that that’s not really what the music business is like. Rock ‘n roll sort of took that and ground it into the ground, and didn’t leave much for a jazz guy, as far as a fan base and that kind of popularity. But I understand it was like that in Sinatra’s time and Benny Goodman’s time, the bobby-soxers would just chase them down. So I wasn’t totally wrong, it was just bad timing on my part.

DM: Did you always play acoustic guitar?

PM: Yeah, I dabbled in the electric guitar as a young pre-teen, and I just didn’t like it. I mean, the Jimi Hendrix thing was coming in big at that point, and I didn’t care for it, I don’t know why. I still don’t really care to listen to electric guitar, it just doesn’t seem to have as much emotion as, say, the way the Gypsies play guitar, which is chock full of emotion. I don’t know how else to explain it.

DM: Do you have any thoughts about why that is for you?

PM: Well, it’s funny. When Django played the electric guitar it lost something, especially his early attempts. He couldn’t seem to translate what he was doing through the electric instrument until about the '50s. He recorded, I think, about four or five sides for Norman Granz because he was going to come over here, and then he died. But he recorded these things, and if you didn’t know, if you played them for other guitar players they wouldn’t know it was Django, because the vibrato was slower and more normal to an electric guitar.

That’s one of the things that makes electric guitar less interesting, I think, is that they almost never use vibrato. The fast vibrato that Django was so known for, that sounds like a French singer, that real fast vibrato, that didn’t work on electric guitar. So he slowed it down and he got a real nice expressive tone out of the guitar, and he really figured out how to get a warm setting out of the amp, but for the most part it tends to make all guitar players sound generic and similar instead of distinctive and individual.

DM: Regarding your CD Postcards from Gypsyland, what was your concept before you started, or did you have one?

PM: I never really do. See, this one Reinhardt record I grew up with, it was an RCA Victor that had a little bit of the stuff that Django did with Coleman Hawkins, a little bit with Freddie Taylor singing in English, it had a solo Django improvisation at the end of each side of the LP, and of course a few quintet things with [violinist] Grappelli and the five-piece thing. So, my familiarity with the music is set into this whole banquet, like you start with an appetizer, you get a main course, then you have a salad, then you might have another course, and then you have a cheese plate, and maybe something to cap it off like coffee or something. It’s like a full meal where you kinda don’t want it to stop but you know that it’s gonna at a certain point. So, I always try to make records like that, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

DM: I really like the cover art and CD package. Who was responsible for that?

PM: Her name his Keara Fallon. She mostly does independent rock bands. I’ve worked with her before, she did our Claire de Lune record. I came up with the idea that we wanted it to look like a postcard with the Eiffel Tower and all that, so I give her all these ideas she puts them into her hopper.

DM: Whose idea was it to include “Pavane Pour une Infante Défunte” by Ravel?

PM: Olivier [Manchon] is the guy responsible for that. He’s the violin and melodica player, and he wrote the arrangement. He’s our spare violin player when Evan Price isn’t available because he’s playing with the Turtle Island String Quartet. Olivier’s really cool, he lives in New York City, born in Paris, plays with the Hot Club of New York, Stephane Wrembel’s group, but they never record with him.

He can play all styles. He played with the Turtle Island String Quartet for a while, but he loves playing this stuff with us because we don’t play just the Django stuff and we don’t play everything lickety-split fast. So I said to him, “Look, you’re part of this band, I want you to be on the record, why don’t pick a couple of songs and arrange them?” So he came up with that “Il Camino” thing, the 5/4 musette, and he came up with the Ravel. I had always been talking to him about Ravel, because he loves Ravel like I love Django.

I’ve been thinking about this piece for years. I handed him the piano transcription that I had been carrying around for years in my guitar case. He took a bunch of different recordings, referenced them and distilled them down and thought about it, then came up with this killer arrangement. And yet, there’s no improvising on that track, so it almost doesn’t belong on the record. It’s a set piece, it’s kind of odd. We get a lot of compliments on that piece.

DM: No wonder. Tell me about the string overdubs on “Jonesin’.”

PM: That’s Evan “Zeppo” Price. I think he’s the future of jazz violin, I really, really do. I mean, the guy is off-the-hook talented, but he swings like somebody three times his age, and he’s just barely into his thirties. I said, “Look, what have you got, what do you want to do?” And he said, “ I’ve got this tune “Jonesin’.” I can arrange it for string quartet and we could play it differently than the Turtle Island String Quartet would play it. I said, “ Let’s just go for it and see how it turns out.”

DM: So, is he actually over-dubbing four string parts?

PM: Yeah, and I think one of them is a viola and one of them is a tenor violin. And then the other [tune] that he did for strings, he’s playing some of the parts and Olivier’s playing some other parts and Evan’s wife Deborah came in and played some violin too. That’s on the tune “Alle Prese Con Una Milonga Verde.”

DM: It’s kind of a mix of new technology and good old-fashioned musician power.

PM: Yeah. And here’s the good news—when we played the record release party at Yoshi’s we did all the stuff live. We actually got the Turtle Island String Quartet to come up and play the “Jonesin’” thing. And Evan’s wife and her girlfriends, two violin players from the local symphony came up and played on the “Alle Prese” piece. We must have had six or seven violins on stage with the quintet. This was a jazz concert at Yoshi’s, which is a major jazz place. I’m sure that Yoshi’s had never seen that many violins swinging and playing hot. It was really a great night.

DM: One of your original tunes on the album that we really like is “Lover’s Leap.” Obviously there’s the big influence of Django there as in all of your work. What else can you tell me about it?

PM: I’ll tell you two things. I had originally written it because I was in one of those “nouveau-swing” groups. About five or 10 years ago they were sweeping the country, like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Squirrel Nut Zippers and all that stuff. We were all about three-part vocal harmony, and we were always looking for new material, because that seemed to be the stuff the swing dancers wanted to hear. I wrote this song and the lyrics were really super stupid. I kind of wrote it to be stupid but it was so stupid that people didn’t get how stupid it was. We never used it with that band, but with the concept of three-part harmony, I thought, “Now, this is something that Django never did.” And you still almost never hear two Django guitar players playing in harmony, let alone three. So I thought, “This is a really fresh idea.” Here are three guitars bending notes in harmony with that kind of cat-like sound, with that kind of phrasing that only gypsy guitar players can play. I guess electric guitar players could, but I wouldn’t want to hear it. I’m really glad that you guys like it, and I’d love to hear the Jim Cullum band play that, it would be so cool.

DM: The next time we get you on Riverwalk that’ll be a must.

PM: That’s the idea behind it—cooperation. If you ask me, “What’s the point of playing the music of Django Reinhardt?” We talk about this in concerts. Our mission statement is to preserve the music and memory of Django and Stéphane and the Quintette, and let it not just vanish and disappear from the face of the earth.

But we also like to sort of keep it fresh, like what you guys are doing with Jim, you know, always finding material that could have been played way back when or should be played now, but holding on to and being respectful of the tradition. I’m certainly not the world’s greatest guitar player, and there will never be another Django. So my feeling is, if I can’t showcase myself in the way that most Gypsy bands do—“it’s all about the guitar”—what I’m trying to do is show people that synergy is just as much a part of jazz as virtuosity. That’s a real distinction that people kind of don’t get. Like Mulligan and Baker, like Dizzy and Charlie Parker, there’s a synergy that happens once the virtuoso solos are over, and that’s kinda what I’m going for.

So when you ask, how did we come up with the Ravel piece, or how does Evan come up with playing four violins, we’re always trying to see what happens when you rub two or more musicians together.