News Column

Beso Negro Delivers Gypsy Jazz

July 12, 2013

Paul Liberatore

Guitar World Magazine named Beso Negro one of the top 10 surprises at the South by Southwest Music Festival last year in Austin. And San Francisco Magazine said the band's edgy style of gypsy jazz made them one of the top 10 performances at the last Outside Lands in San Francisco. They won me over after I heard them wow the crowd at the Fourth of July parade in Bolinas last week.

What's remarkable is that the five Marin musicians in Beso Negro have generated all this buzz and they haven't even released a debut album yet.

One of the reasons for the excitement is the fact that no one is playing Django Reinhardt-syle jazz with attitude like these guys. It's gypsy jazz for the next generation.

"We're aggressive," explained 30-year-old guitarist Javier Jimenez, co-founder of the band. "We play with fire, with a lot of passion."

Jimenez, who's from Madrid and now lives in Fairfax, started Beso Negro (translation: Dark Kiss) with 39-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist Adam Roach. Roach, an American tattoo artist as well as a musician, had been living in Spain for 14 years when he met Jimenez in Barcelona. They hit it off and soon began jamming together.

Bored with conventional rock and pop, they were searching for something new and different to build a band around. That's when they were turned on by the great Django Reinhardt, who invented the "hot" jazz guitar style that made him and his Quintette

du Hot Club de France one of the most original bands of the 1930s and '40s.

"When I first listened to him, I was amazed by his playing," Jimenez recalled the other day. "I remember saying to myself, 'That's what I want to do.'"

But you don't just pick up a guitar and decide to play like Django Reinhardt. Jimenez became a protege of Diego Araoz of Baxtalo Drom, a band in the tradition of the Hot Club of France. Roach had studied with Grammy-winner Redd Volkaert, a country-style electric guitarist. But he had to teach himself the specialized rhythm guitar technique, called "the gypsy pump," that he needed to master in order to play behind Jimenez's solos.

"It's a demanding style of music, right down to the guitars and the guitar picks you use," Roach said. "I never thought I could do it, so I had to kind of change my brain around. After a while, we got OK at it. And then I started writing songs with that feeling in mind, in this new style we were excited about."

The excitement evolved into obsession as the two of them spent every available moment working to develop the chops it takes to become proficient at a guitar style that Reinhardt popularized, setting a very high bar.

"We did nothing else," Roach

remembered. "Sometimes after a long day at work, Javier would literally throw stones at my window. He'd be out there with a cheap beer and his guitar. He'd coax me to come down, and we'd play on the street for hours. We were hungry."

Missing his family, and unhappy with the DJ scene that dominates pop music in Europe, Roach returned to the U.S. He grew up in Monterey, but when an old friend, Steve Gardner, now Beso Negro's violinist, invited him to play a gig in Marin, he knew right away that he'd found his new home.

"I'd never even been up here," he said. "I fell in love with it in a short amount of time, realizing there's this amazing music culture and thriving scene up here."

It didn't take long for Jimenez to join him in the U.S. After three three-month visits, he settled in Fairfax permanently. When he first arrived, he had a backpack and his guitar. Now he's married to a woman he met in Marin and is the father of a 3-month-old baby girl.

"I love it here," he crowed. "I found my little oasis. I fell in love with the culture and the music scene."

As they began playing around the county, Roach, Jimenez and Gardner were still looking to fill out their developing sound. After he sat in with them one night at Smiley's in Bolinas, bassist Cheyenne Young was invited to join the band.

At 42, Young had years of experience playing in rock, blues and funk groups. He'd also toured with his rock star father, Jesse Colin Young.

Because he's never before found a band situation that offered him much of a future, he was planning on going to culinary school to become a chef, but Beso Negro convinced him to take one last stab at success as a musician. The band now rehearses in Young's home studio in Fairfax.

"I hadn't really discovered a band of guys I could believe in for a very long time," he said. "It was one of those natural feelings I had this was right. My dad's opinion was. 'You should play with these guys because these guys are going somewhere.'"

When the fledgling band went into Ethan Turner's Owl Mountain Studio in Inverness to begin recording a debut album, Turner, an accomplished percussionist, became enamored with Roach's songwriting, Jimenez's lead guitar work and the group's originality. When he was asked to become Beso Negro's new drummer, he quit three other groups he'd been playing with to devote all his energy to this new project.

"Drumwise, it's a lesser-known, unexplored genre," he said "It opened up a whole new world to me."

With its lineup set, Beso Negro is fast becoming one of the most in-demand bands in Marin. They're on the bill for the Far West Fest on July 27 in Point Reyes Station, and, for the second consecutive year, they'll be showcased at Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park, playing Aug. 9 to 11 on one of the side stages.

"Ever since we played the Great American Music Hall, opening for the Iguanas, we've been rocketing out of control," Young said, excitedly ticking off a list of wineries, concert dates and festival gigs that will keep Beso Negro busy through the summer. "We're all older, we've been there and done that. So we're all very serious. We're treating this like it's a job and a career."

Contact Paul Liberatore via email at liberatore@marinij.com. Follow his blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/ad_lib.

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(c)2013 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

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