There may be hope yet for the great city of Detroit.
If it can drive through bankruptcy proceedings the way one of its leading jazz ensembles powered through its first show Friday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club, there could be better times ahead.
As its name implies, the Hot Club of Detroit builds on the exuberant, joyous precedent of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli's Quintet of the Hot Club of France – optimistic music of the 1930s well suited for hard times, then or now.
But the Hot Club of Detroit pushes out at conventional definitions of gypsy jazz with edgy, original repertoire and an aggressive, hard-charging strategy for ensemble improvisation. Granted, the band's rough-and-tumble character does not convey the elegance of Grappelli's silken violin lines riding Reinhardt's chugging guitar chords. Yet there are other pleasures to be derived from its decidedly brawnier style.
The personnel of the Hot Club of Detroit has changed over the years it has visited the Green Mill, but lead guitarist Evan Perri and accordionist Julien Labro remain key players, Perri's nimble lines answered by Labro's seemingly nonchalant virtuosity. They're the heart of this band, with saxophonist Andrew Bishop adding sonic heft and rhythm guitarist Ivan Pena and bassist Jordan Schug pushing the music ever forward.
Some of the most appealing repertoire of the opening set came from these musicians' pens, as in Perri and Labro's "For Stephane," dedicated not to Grappelli but to the eclectic contemporary guitarist Stephane Wrembel. Yes, currents of classic gypsy jazz coursed through this music, especially when Labro spun long, soaring melody lines over the band's pulsing rhythms. But Bishop's tenor saxophone solos were as muscular as anything you'd hear from a post-bebop band, and the tune's harmonic vocabulary left 1930s jazz in the rear-view mirror.
"Song for Gabriel" was created by Perri and Labro as a tip of the hat to Peter Gabriel, and there was no mistaking the tune's populist perspective. Once again, reedist Bishop blew quite hard, this time on soprano saxophone, with jazz, pop and gypsy idioms converging and colliding here.
But the band pushed furthest out on the classic "Coquette," a staple of Reinhardt's repertoire that the Hot Club of Detroit transformed into an epic, multi-faceted work built on solo, duo, trio and full-ensemble sections. En masse, the band produced delightfully strange, intensely chromatic chord progressions that tested listener expectations – no one really knew where this performance was going, which was a large part of its charm.
Labro's solos here, and elsewhere, reaffirmed his position as one of the world's most dynamic accordionists, his vocabulary of chord clusters, ferociously fast lines and novel sonic effects consistently piquing interest, as did his lyrical work on accordina (a mouth-blown instrument).
So listeners who had come to the Green Mill expecting a gypsy-jazz nostalgia bath were bound to have been startled, at the very least. But the Hot Club of Detroit offered something else, what critic Whitney Balliett famously called "the sound of surprise," which remains about as compelling a definition of jazz as any.
It applied to most of the work of the Hot Club of Detroit, a rambunctious outfit that represents its namesake city well.
The Hot Club of Detroit plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.