Garden City Hot Club Review by Harold S. Riter

Garden City Hot Club at Ontonagon Theater

Harold S. Riter, Reporting

Ontonagon Herald, October 22, 2014

Last Saturday’s performance of the Garden City Hot Club group fronted by Steve Jones was arguably the best modern jazz presentation to appear on the local stage. If you are a country music fan, or into hard rock, this band may have left you less than moved, but if you are into jazz as an American art form, you would have been in 7th Heaven.

The band has been on our stage before, but Saturday evening, in addition to the incomparable Steve Jones on lead guitar, there was Bob Hiltunen on rhythm guitar; Scott McIntosh on bass, Dan Firman on piano, and John Peiffer on F horn, harmonica, and ukulele.

Jones needs no introduction to anyone who has heard him perform. Once you experience his artistry on the guitar (he plays a vintage Epiphone) you do not forget him. Playing the instrument since age 7, Jones, who grew up in the UP, won first place in the 2004 East Coast Regional Finals, a national guitar competition. After playing professionally on the east coast, he returned to the UP and has been playing and teaching.

Bob Hiltunen sat on the stage crouched behind his new Epiphone. His trademark smile on his face, Hiltunen was clearly enjoying himself as a jazz musician. Gone was the plank choking rock jockey, and in its place was a serious student musician. We know that the rock kid is still there somewhere, but where there is music, and whether on guitar, bass, or drums, Hiltunen is there having too much fun!

Scott McIntosh is the serious straight-man of the group, and that is a good thing. Without the steady walking bass he lays down, establishing the harmonic foundation, the improvisations of the others may lead listeners astray. Someone has to keep these guys together and McIntosh does it. He plays a 5-string fretless bass and moves about the finger board with accuracy and speed. McIntosh is a bass man’s bass man.

New with this group to local theatre goers was Dan Firman working at the theater’s grand piano. No electronic keyboard for this guy. He is a true practitioner of the real keyboard. At times he reminded us of Phineas Newborn Jr. and at other times he employed the same style as Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. It was very obvious that Firman has been around.

At this point it needs to be said that none of these guys use manuscripts. The music is improvised, that is, it is live creative artistry, and one would not hear it exactly the same twice.

Also featured in Saturday’s show was John Peiffer, who plays French horn in the orchestra at the National Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. With this background one has to wonder how he found his way into playing jazz on what he calls the “natural” horn. We were very curious about what roll this instrument would play in the Hot Club Band and we soon found out. Peiffer uses an F horn, though a bit more tightly wrapped than a conventional instrument, with no valves. One of the unusual characteristics of the F horn is that its normal range is upwards of the 12th harmonic, whereas a trumpet or cornet seldom ventures above the 7th or 8th harmonic. In that range, it is possible to play an enharmonic scale (in the key of F) simply by lipping it. Also, the F horn can be played “stopped,” with the hand obstructing the flow of air and thus sharping the pitch up. In the days before valves were invented (about 1808), all orchestral horns were played by the player using the hand to get the various tones required.

Peiffer is a master at playing the “natural” or what we would call the “hunting” horn, actually sounding somewhat like a trombone, with much flexibility on his part to work with the others. We noted his use of lip trills, and he even employed a slight vibrato at times, something one almost never hears in an orchestral setting from a horn. The use of a hunting horn in what is basically a string band was radical, and wild!

“I had to Do It,” a vocal by Jones in is nice, laid back voice was enhanced by Firman who took a whack at the melody at the piano, improving…improvising on it. Jones also took on “Love is Just around the Corner,” with commentary added Peiffer on his horn.

“Autumn Leaves” ala Johnny Mercer was next, with Jones achieving an almost harp-like effect on an opening cadenza before launching into a bosa-nova type beat with Firman playing Newborn-like accompaniment and the almost mournful sounds from Peiffer’s horn. This was an outstanding rendition of this well known song.

Following the intermission, featured tunes included Peiffer, who hung a ukulele around his neck and played Eggs in a Basket,” and “In a Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington. There was “Dunkin’ Bagels, “Nervous Shakedown” (an original), and “My Walkin’ Stick” by Irving Berlin.

It is quite impossible to fully describe or express the spirit and feeling of this performance, and listing every number would be of no point. Let us simply conclude by saying that the Garden City Hot Club, as it appeared on the stage at the Ontonagon Theater of performing Arts, is as fine a group as you will hear anywhere. We realize that this was a special assemblage of top musicians for this performance, and if you missed it, you missed a one of a kind performance that cannot be repeated. When there is an offering of this kind, it is an opportunity to hear and witness the creation of art in sound. Once passed, it will not be back, and recordings never can replace what is heard in a live performance.