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August 26, 2004



Photo and headline of Cuckoo's Nest Gypsy Jazz Quintet

TRINIDAD-BASED violinists Rob Diggins and Jolianne von Einem are respected period instrument specialists who regularly perform and record with prominent early music ensembles, including the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of San Francisco and Portland Baroque Orchestra. But when they join forces with stand-up bassist Tami Pallingston and guitarists Dave Wilson and Jim Adams, the violinists become fiddlers, setting aside classical music in favor of classic jazz to take the lead in the Cuckoo's Nest Gypsy Jazz Quintet [photo above].

In January the band recorded its second CD, Happy Birthday Django, a live affair capturing a celebration of the music of the late great guitarist Django Reinhardt, the father of Gypsy jazz. While most of the tunes on the recording are by Django, the opening track is by another jazzman, Charlie "Bird" Parker. This weekend Cuckoo's Nest presents "Bird's Birthday Bash," another live recording session, this time celebrating the life and music of Parker, Gypsy jazz style.

Local music aficionado Maia Cheli-Colando sat down with Diggins recently to talk about Django, Bird, fiddling and Cuckoo's Nest.

Maia: Cuckoo's Nest calls itself a Gypsy jazz band. Can you explain the difference between Gypsy jazz and the jazz Charlie Parker played, and how the two overlap in Cuckoo territory?

Rob: Gypsy jazz is a media term used to loosely describe jazz played on specially constructed acoustic guitars, "Gypsy guitars," and made popular by the legendary Belgian Gypsy guitarist, Django Reinhardt. This basic core ensemble of at least two guitars can be supplemented ad libitum by other acoustic instruments, including violin, accordion, etc. Notably missing is any form of percussion instrument, the rhythmic aspect being shared instead by the guitars and other instruments.

Aside from the fact that Django was a Gypsy, albeit a citified Gypsy, the style of music has almost nothing to do with [Gypsy folk music]. The extensive use of diminished and minor harmonies played on the special guitars gave his interpretations of standards an exotic, Romantic -- "Gypsy" sound.

This was not by accident, or even by chance. In the very beginning, Django Reinhardt was explicitly asked to perform an experiment for L'ecole du Musique, Paris. He was asked to put together a show playing American jazz standards using three guitars, violin and bass. The concert was so well received that the owner of the Hot Club in Paris asked the band to become his regular house band. The rest is history.

In a very self-conscious way then, Django and the Hot Club band were copying the American Jazz that they heard, translating it, so to speak, into their own instruments and voices, yet, nonetheless, they were emulating the cool Afro-American thing.

On the other hand, Bird was the real thing, the originator par excellence -- the quintessential hipster, beat, jazz musician. Bird played in a standard jazz combo: horns, piano, drums and bass, or in Big Band settings with strings, etc. Interestingly, while Bird appreciated artistic genius where he found it, he was no fool, and, he openly mocked and ridiculed both the American and the French/Euro intellectuals who idolized and imitated the noble "primitiv," epitomized, they thought, by black American jazz musicians.

In a sense, we're doing a similar thing, that is, emulating and imitating an idol. On a broader note, Cuckoo's Nest is a jazz quintet, and as such, we hope to explore the eclectic tastes of our members. Naturally, our instrumentation allows us to do Hot Club material the easiest, and the qualification `the Gypsy Jazz Quintet' does describe our instrumentation to those [in the] know.

Maia: You come from a classical background, and are approaching jazz with that history at your fingers, while performers like Parker came at it from a band background. Do you think that leads you to different places in the music?

Rob: My history may not be what you think it is, especially if you base your ideas on how my career has developed up to this point. At the same time that I was studying the violin, I also studied the cornet. Not only was our household full of music, all kinds of music, our musical tastes were anything but parochial. For instance, my older brother [a trumpet player], my dad [ a trombonist] and I blew through jazz tunes on a nightly basis for at least a few years of my young life. And, since both my grandfather and my father also played the odd fiddle tune or two, all six of us kids learned how to fiddle around, too.

As a kid, growing up in L.A. in the `60s and `70s meant all sorts of musical opportunities, from youth orchestras, summer ad hoc Broadway musicals, soundtracks for B sci-fi films, chamber music groups and competitions, etc. This sort of exposure to a wide variety of musical styles is really my background: cosmopolitan in the best sense.

Maia: Any idea of what your next project will be?

Rob: Well, for starters, we have a show on Sept. 19 at the Morris Graves Museum called "Cuckoo's Nest plays from the Great American Songbook," featuring the music of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and others. Then in the spring, as part of the Fortuna Concert Series, we will do a show called "Hard Bop and Beyond" featuring music of an era that was like no other, 1950-1960. We also expect to have a special holiday CD ready for release in November featuring the Cuckooification of some great holiday standards.

In addition to these projects and shows, we are also hoping to travel and tour outside of Humboldt County as well as bring guest artists to town to play with the band locally. With this band, the possibilities are almost endless.

The Cuckoo's Nest Gypsy Jazz Band presents "Bird's Birthday Bash" -- a salute to Charlie Parker -- at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 29, at the Westhaven Center for the Arts. Admission is $10, including cake and refreshments. For reservations call 677-9493.


Bob Doran



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