Review: Hot Club of Baltimore at Café Mezzanotte, March 15, 2020
It was Sunday, March 15, the eve of the closure of bars and restaurants, of “social distancing,” masks, and latex-gloved hands. Thirty-some people gathered in the casually elegant back room at Café Mezzanotte in Severna Park, Maryland, to enjoy live jazz. Tasteful paintings and shelves of books and wine bottles made the space feel like an upscale living room. The glassed-in fireplace warmed the atmosphere as dinners were served and strangers made tentative conversation at the large round tables. But when members of Hot Club of Baltimore walked in with their instruments, the trials of the world receded for a while: Michael Joseph Harris and Sami Arefin on guitar, and Shawn Simon on bass created a welcome respite from the bad news outside.
Known for Gypsy Jazz and Roma Swing, Hot Club of Baltimore did not disappoint, playing a wide variety of songs and styles, from Debussy (1890) to Fats Waller (1929) to Django Reinhardt (1920s-1953) to Michael Joseph Harris’s originals. The virtuosity of all three musicians was prodigious: on the fast-paced, driving “Caravan,” Michael Joseph Harris’s fingers flew on the fretboard, and Shawn Simon made traversing the distances on the bass’s fingerboard seem effortless.
Hot Club of Baltimore makes a specialty of Django Reinhardt’s renditions, and this performance was no exception. In “Honeysuckle Rose,” a Fats Waller composition that Reinhardt adapted, Michael Joseph Harris and Sami Arefin traded sizzling solos. In the waltz “Indifference” and the ethereal “Nuages,” their lighter touch was no less virtuosic and compelling.
Other highlights of the evening’s repertoire included a rendition of “The Sheik of Araby” (1921) featuring tight solos by all three musicians; “Seule ce Soir,” featuring mandolin rolls on the guitar; and “It had to Be You” (1924), featuring amazingly fast riffs by Michael Joseph Harris.
Hot Club of Baltimore is legendary locally and respected by jazz aficionados nationwide. The fiery guitar work of Michael Joseph Harris and the creative rhythm guitar of Sami Arefin, who is also an incredible soloist, are grounded by the superb bass work of Shawn Simon. Unfortunately, Alexis Tantau, Hot Club’s vocalist, was unable to be part of this performance. The “chanteuse,” who sings in her native Occitan, in addition to French and English, has been lauded for her stylistic renderings of the period songs Hot Club performs (noted in many reviews), as well as for the sheer beauty of her voice, and while we were sorry not to hear her, we were not in the least disappointed in the performances of Michael Joseph Harris, Sami Arefin, and Shawn Simon, and we look forward to hearing Tantau in the future.
For a last gathering as we headed into an uncertain future, Hot Club of Baltimore’s performance at Café Mezzanotte reminded us yet again of the power of music to bring us together and to provide an escape from difficult realities. The venue was warm and welcoming, the food excellent (the Lobster Butternut and Fettuccini Mediterraneo were unparalleled!), and the service superb. The staff was attentive, friendly, and efficient. While circumstances yielded a smaller audience than had initially been expected, it is a tribute to Hot Club of Baltimore’s following that so many brave souls put their fears aside and came out to support a magnificent jazz ensemble.
Café Mezzanotte is located a 760 Ritchie Highway in Severna Park, Maryland 21146. On its website, it is described as an “informal restaurant serving traditional Italian cooking in a relaxed, modern space with central bar,” offering dine-in, takeout, and delivery services.
Café Mezz had just started its jazz series on the third Sundays of the month, from 5 to 7 pm; however, the schedule is currently on hold during the time of coronavirus. Call 410-647-100 for more information or visit https://www.cafemezzanotte.com/whatshappening/. Hopefully, when life returns to normal, this wonderful jazz series will continue.
Hot Club of Baltimore’s Recent CD: Hot Club of Baltimore Hot Club of Baltimore featuring Alexis Tantau. Visit https://michaeljosephharris.com/hotclubofbaltimore. Hot Club of Baltimore also has an active Facebook presence.