By Robert L. Doerschuk
Encore Bright Lights, Big City: Western Swing Fiddler Elana James leaves Cowtown in the Dust
Link to story:http://www.stringsmagazine.com/article/150/150,4055,Encore-1.asp
You know that your star has assumed its place in the fiddle firmament when Willie Nelson calls with a session date and you have to sigh and reply, Geez, I’m sorry, but I’m already booked with Bob Dylan. As it turns out, even Dylan has to get in line now for Elana James, whose self-titled solo debut on her own Snarf label heralds her emergence from the Hot Club of Cowtown toward a more elevated and risky autonomy.
If you’re a girl and you like to sing and play the violin, there could be a space for you with practically any band on earth, she admits. But there seem to be fewer and fewer female instrumentalists who lead their own bands, so it’s very cool that this opportunity has opened for me to do what I want.
And what exactly would that be? Judging from Elana James, the list ranges from two-beat variations on Parisian swing (Twenty-Four Hours a Day) and old-school country (Dylan’s One More Night), to updated square-dance numbers, executed with crisp vocal and instrumental harmonies (Goodbye Liza Jane), new material set to a haunting, drone-based Appalachian feel (All the World and I), plus a few jazz tunes, both classic (I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good), Memories of You) and obscure (I Don’t Mind).
That’s a plateful, but James serves it with brio.
Young, yet seasoned by experience, she was born to a violinist mother near Kansas City and schooled on Suzuki from age five. James detoured briefly to Barnard en route to earning a degree in Eastern religions, and she discovered western swing through lessons with violinist Marty Laster while in New York. This led her to study the jazz violin styles of Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti, and St’phane Grappelli. After that, she ventured to San Diego, where she and Whit Smith founded the Hot Club of Cowtown. Critics singled her out on their five albums and at their shows; more critically, so did Dylan, for whom the band opened during his tour with Willie Nelson. When Dylan hit the road again in the spring of ’05, she was in his band.
It was like going from zero to a hundred overnight, she says. There weren’t as many chord changes as in the old swing tunes I’d been playing, but on the other hand, a lot of his songs were in F# and Db, which don’t come naturally to the violin. It was a challenge but it was also very exciting to play those songs. And it was especially neat when [we played Merle Haggard’s ‘Sing Me Back Home,’ as the encore on some of those Bob Dylan shows] because that was a little closer to where I’d come from.”
That summer, with the tour winding down and the Hot Club having released its last album in ’03, the time seemed right to start work on the solo project. Armed with new tunes and a selection of older ones, James entered Congress House Studio in Austin that September with her Mittenwald violin, which she has played since age nine, and a group of musicians that included, on one memorable day, a western-swing legend and former member of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys that she had befriended after moving to Texas in 1998.’
‘Johnny Gimble never talks about how he plays something,’ she explains. ‘Instead, he wants to show you how someone else, maybe Bob Wills or J.R. Chatwell, did it. He’ll play recordings by Benny Goodman, or [fiddle masters] Keith Coleman and Cliff Bruner, or he’ll play phrases and lines that he’s soaked in. It’s a revelation to hear about the people who inspired him and to hear their echoes in his playing. I was listening to an early Svend Asmussen recording once and this lick popped up that I’d heard Johnny do, or something close to it, in ‘Fiddlin’ Around,’ his ode to augmented double-stops. It’s reassuring to realize that everything comes from somewhere, but genius is genius.”
Recording through carefully chosen older microphones, always direct rather than through onboard amplification, and doing her best to rein in a habit she’d developed with wireless systems onstage of moving around as she plays, James delivered a product that reflects technical assurance and playful spirit as well as her fidelity to jazz and country lineages.’
‘I played on a State Department tour last fall in Azerbaijan, and it was fantastic to watch people doing their traditional dances to ‘Buffalo Gals,” she says, laughing. ‘I have an opportunity now to develop not just as a modern incarnation of that energy but as something deeper than that. It’s exciting to start fresh with that energy and stay open to wherever it leads.