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December 30, 2010

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Gypsy jazz from Wayne's Basement

TWO French guitarists and an American double bass player produce gypsy jazz that's totally acoustic - rare in loud and noisy Shanghai - and unusual because there's no single lead player. Katie Foley visits Wayne's Basement.

Picking a band name is often a fraught process for musicians. They need just the right levels of hidden meaning, irony and catchiness, without sounding like tryhards.

For Shanghai jazz three-piece Wayne's Basement, the name was picked as they jokingly threw around ideas.

French guitarists Etienne Jeanne and Jeremy Lasry and American double bass player E.J. Parker play a style of music that originated in the Roma camps of Europe - gypsy jazz. They say that as independent musicians, they avoided all the usual kinds of jazz band names so that they wouldn't be pigeon-holed.

"We do jazz festivals and there are a lot of jazz bands or reggae bands that have names like Lions of Puxi and stuff like that," Lasry says. "Let's say if you put The Gypsy Guitars, it just doesn't look that good on paper, but if you put Wayne's Basement, it looks OK.

"We are not rock and roll, but we could be. People can't tell what kind of band we are just by looking at the name," he says.

Wayne's Basement is a reference to the classic 1990s film "Wayne's World" about two young American slackers who produce a little-known cable TV show in Wayne's parents' basement.

There is some deeper meaning - the movie is essentially about a group of friends improvising a project and that's also what the band tries to achieve with their music, they say.

The band Wayne's Basement was created after a memorable gig at a small Shanghai restaurant in September 2009.

It stood out because the musicians played completely acoustically, in stark contrast to how music and life is usually experienced in Shanghai - loud and electronic.

"Everything is very loud in China, really excessively loud, and when we played at this little restaurant together for the first time we were acoustic - just us and our guitars and basses and that was it," Parker says.

"It just felt really comfortable being listened to acoustically. We are really happy to just cut out all the wires, all the amplification, all the sound guys, and just play," he says.

Their music reveals the true nature of their instruments because all that electronic equipment and microphones actually alter the sound slightly.

Gypsy jazz is a genre characterized by fast finger work, acoustics and a unique instrumentation - there is no percussion or drums - typically just guitars, a double bass and perhaps a violin.

French gypsy Django Reinhardt pioneered this style of jazz in the 1940s and 1950s and he did it all with two partially paralyzed fingers on his left hand after a fire gutted his caravan when he was young.

It is a malleable style of music with lots of freedom to improvise and this stems from the kinds of people who originally played it.

"The lifestyle of a gypsy guy is that he owns his time," Lasry says. "He does what he wants in the morning and he goes where he wants and then this is the same with the guitar. You own your music, and you do your style till the end. There is no one that comes and says, 'Oh, you have to do it like this.'

"Of course there are some chords that you have to respect and do, but the only rule is to do that," he adds.

Gypsy jazz generally involves a lot of solos and trading. Wayne's Basement pride themselves on being more of a democratic band, whereas many of the jazz three-pieces in Europe have a lead musician who tends to hog the limelight.

So while none of the group is of Roma origin, they all have solid musical backgrounds.

Lasry comes from a very musical family. At 14 when he told his father he wanted to quit school to be a musician, Lasry Sr said it was about time and that he was running a little late.

Jeanne doesn't have musical roots - his family are fishermen - but he formed a love for the guitar at a young age.

"I cried for a guitar to my mom when I was like eight years old and she was afraid it was just going to be like 'Oh, my son wants a guitar because he saw 'Back to the Future' and Marty McFly played 'Johnny Be Good' at the end," he says.

But he was very interested, and a guitar-playing friend taught him some basics. Eventually mom bought a guitar - and he still plays that one.

Parker majored in jazz performance at university and spent much of his teenage years honing his craft with guidance from the old local jazz musicians.

The Shanghai jazz scene is very different from most others because it's relatively new and it lacks an older generation of experienced musicians.

"You have good local players in their mid 30s, and those guys are the oldest in the scene, whereas you go to France, Germany, New York, the guys are 70, 80 years old and they have been playing jazz since their 40s. They are really well-marinated, they have all the stories, all the songs, but we lack that element here, which I miss," Parker says.

Wayne's Basement played at the opening of several pavilions at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, including at the France Pavilion. It was a great opportunity to piggyback off the Expo excitement and sell copies of their CD, which has a characteristically light-hearted title: "What, What!?!?"

The next steps for the band include a tour around Europe and the United States, including jazz festivals, in mid to late 2011.

Jeanne says they are looking forward to taking the band back to their home countries to see how their eclectic mix of genre, current city and nationality will be received.

"People look at us more like we are gypsies," Lasry says. "Finally - we are living far away."


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