Somewhere around March 2007 I rediscovered the swing music of the Parisian jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, a Manouche Gypsy best known for his work with Stephane Grappelli in Le Quintette du Hot Club de France in the 30's. A legend in his time, he is heralded to this day for creating a style called Gypsy jazz (GJ). Django's playing affected me so much that I adopted his technique (if not his talent), discovered a forum, and joined Sinti Rhythm, an acoustic band that plays vintage swing. I recently finished this CD jacket design for the band's first recording, an EP which represents months of work in the studio. Here's a sample from it, a traditional tune called David, on which I solo.
In negotiating with my band mates about doing the jacket's design I offered to provide two concepts. But with the deadline looming there was only time to do a composition around a quirky abstract photo taken of the band in a previous shoot that people had gone ga-ga over. It could hopefully fit in with other elements I had wanted for the cover, which included a retro, contemporary feel with a Gypsy-ish, exotic flavor, a distressed treatment and woody, earthy, tactile, hot qualities...a lot of requirements to meet, particularly when you're not getting paid; instead you are helping pay production costs. But I was driven by a love of the music. It had been over three decades since I last recorded, and that was on vinyl...that's late even for a comeback.
Being on a limited budget, we had to go with options that were economical. As an unsigned band we would have to assume all production costs ourselves. When your band consists of two fulltime musicians, a librarian, and an artist, there aren't the pockets for frills. We decided on a jacket format instead of a jewel case or slimcase, because the jacket looked cool, like a mini-version of jazz LP covers of old, which had mostly liner notes in b&w on the back as seen here. The disc itself would just be stamped with the record title and artist's name—not a very creative design approach, but clean, functional and cheap. I was not doing this to win contests but to produce something that would pass muster with my buds and protect and announce a recording of sentimental value. If the cover could add artistic value to the end product, so much the better.
The cover's background comes from the spruce top of my guitar, a Gitane DG-255. The idea for that came from focussing on what its music sounded like. Since the distinctive feature of Gypsy jazz is the acoustic sound of natural wood—whether the bright timbre of a solo or the rumbly growl of rhythm strokes, (la pompe) I naturally thought of wood grain.
I shot a detail of my guitar's top using my old Olympus 3-megapixel C-3000, which died after this shot. So this was all the original woodgrain I was going to get under the deadline. No biggie, since I was planning to distress the grain anyway and bury it beneath the type and photo.
The cover pic was snapped by our friend, Django fan, and photographer, Adam Kellie, in a moment of spontaneous whimsy. He was shooting a photo session of us when, in a timeout, he spotted this sudden arrangement of appendages and instruments, seized the moment, and captured a whimsical composition that expressed something elegant and strange—we knew not what but we thought it was really wonderful.
The font I eventually chose for the band name after experimenting many was Taroca, which I like for its exotic, carnival-like, tarot elements.
At one point I thought a distressed typeface might look good, whether I downloaded it pre-distressed, or I roughed it up myself in Photoshop (which turns out to be not so easy). Pre-distressed fonts considered were: Broken 15, Dirty Ego, Downcome, Guilty, Nasty, Misproject...you'd have loved the names of many I didn't consider.
But first I wanted to find some regular fonts I might enjoy roughing up myself, preferring homemade to off-the-shelf. The distressed Taroca idea above was suggested by illustrator Darrell Myers, a Photoshop expert whose help was of inestimable value to me.
I did over 40 layout versions—these are some of them. It was hard to decide. One problem was that a striking photo in the composition tended to dominate rather than contribute to a total integrated design. So the photo had to be shaken up, its preciousness reduced so things would start jumping rather than lying there. To get that happening Darrell suggest enlarging and bleeding the pic off the left, splitting the composition, and pushing the type around, and in doing so we bumped the composition up to another level. After trading edits back and forth we achieved two dynamic solutions, one of which the band approved.
Sinti Rhythm in our one and only photo shoot. Corralling us guys together and getting us to pose was like herding cats. As a result we have precious few publicity shots. From Left, Matt Ambrose (currently replaced by Mike Ball), Andy Moore, Jack Soref, and me.
Voila le band. This pic above was taken over a year ago. Dress was supposed to be "graphic", i.e., dark jackets, contrasting shirts, bold shapes, etc. As you see, the band takes art direction—how do you say—poorly... An endearing trait of ours.
The band with Jason Anick guest-starring on violin. He tours the world with The John Jorgenson Quintet, but to us he's just a hometown boy from Marlboro. James Nicoloro second from right, on drums. Matt Ambrose on bass, second from left.
Here's us performing at Atwood's Tavern in Cambridge, MA, a pub with uncommonly good pub food. Sinti Rhythm has had a residency there for over three years, amazing when you think how obscure the Gypsy jazz genre is (some people think it's like what The Gypsy Kings do—wrong). But we have consistently brought in a loyal following through the power of the music, mailings and PR.
Jack Soref, guitarist on the right, has been a big influence on my playing. He's a Berklee jazz composition alum, and an articulate proponent of Django's music, picking style, and the whole field of Gypsy jazz. His knowledge of its players and their work is comprehensive. Can't say enough about him...he's a great bandmate, one of the best I've ever worked with.
Andy Moore on the licorice stick, Matt Ambrose on bass. Andy's a reference librarian at Wayland Public Library and a sometime actor. He has given lectures on the life and music of Django Reinhardt, one of them with a concert by the band at The French Library and Cultural Center of Boston on Django's Centennial, which was sold out with latecomers outside, storming the library. An authority on traditional jazz and a master of onstage wit, plus one-quarter carnival barker, Andy never fails to crack us up during his repartee between songs.
Matt Ambrose on bass, with James Nicoloro, right. Matt is a former wunderkind who received a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music. It's easy to see why when you hear him. He is said to play "in the middle of the beat," which you can't fathom how great that is until you hear him. Matt isn't with the band anymore; he moved to greener pastures, but his legacy continues in the personna of Mike Ball (No pic available, I'll post one here when Mike ponies one up), a New England Conservatory alum and veteran bassist who played with the legendary Jay McShann. Mike is a great guy to play with.
Check out the only film in existence with an accurate sound track of Django, performing in 1939. Note the two little fingers of his left hand, paralyzed in a fire which burst out in his caravan trailer at age 18. They became useless for anything but applying gross pressure, like a bar, to the strings. What's amazing is that his playing gives no clue of his injury. It's an inspiring lesson to those of us who complain about physical obstacles hampering our expressive talent.