It took more than 30 years of playing guitar in a variety of contexts and genres for Baltimore bandleader Michael Harris to find his true calling, as an exponent of the virtuosic gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt.
“I have always been multi-stylistic in my approach, but I always loved the acoustic guitar the most,” Harris says. “I had been playing in a lot of Cuban and Brazilian styles, but I was missing the swing that’s inherent in jazz. And then I heard Django, and I was captivated. When he played, it was like no one else. It was like, here was this thing that had been right in front of my face for so many years.”
That was 2013. The epiphany led to a sort of sea change in Harris’s musical endeavors, as he began studying guitar anew, networking with a variety of international musicians conversant in Reinhardt’s music, even making a pilgrimage to the town in northern France where the late guitarist spent the last years of his life. In 2014, Harris founded Hot Club of Baltimore, a collective devoted to playing the music of Reinhardt and other like-minded artists, and also the smaller Ultrafaux, a nimble three-piece offshoot of HCOB that plays original music rooted in Reinhardt’s technical and compositional approach. Harris is bringing Ultrafaux to the upstairs Speakeasy bar at Preservation Pub.
Reinhardt’s music was shaped in strange and unexpected ways by a near-tragedy, a fire that nearly killed him and his new bride when he was an aspiring young guitar player in the 1920s, traveling and working from a gypsy caravan in France. Reinhardt escaped, pulling his wife from the flames, but suffered severe burns over large portions of his body; two fingers on his left fretting hand were left all but paralyzed. But rather than quitting the instrument, Reindhardt evolved a whole new technical approach, one that made allowances for his handicap, yet ended up adding a distinctive texture and nuance to the music in the process.
“I had to relearn a lot of things when I came to the music,” Harris says. “He did a lot of what he did out of necessity, but it created a very distinctive sound. The melodic stuff he came up with was brilliant. But sometime I wonder whether he would have come up with all of that if he had working fingers. He created all kinds of cool stuff.”
Though the concept of a gypsy jazz band might seem a little esoteric — the kind of stuff better suited to international music festivals and hipster cafes than to noisy bars where rock ‘n’ roll bands play — Harris says both his outfits are generally well-received, regardless of the venue.
“People usually love the music,” he says. “It’s familiar in a way that’s not obvious, but it’s in their consciousness, sort of new and familiar at the same time. And it’s very danceable. If we’re in a family-friendly venue, children love to get up and dance.
“It’s a truly world music, because the gypsies were traveling all across Europe. So you had lots of different styles deriving from all these nomadic musicians, mixing Latin, Spanish, classical, and then the swing of jazz and all the way into blues. As an acoustic trio, we’re one of the few bands of this kind in the world playing original music in that style. So far, every audience we’re ever played has given us a good response.”
Ultrafaux will play Preservation Pub Wednesday, Jan. 24 at 10 p.m.