Gypsy jazz music, the style pioneered by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in 1930s Paris, has proven to be both enduring and palatable to a widespread audience. Given New Orleans’ French roots and its embrace of the vagabond-Gypsy lifestyle it’s no surprise that this type of music flourishes in the Crescent City. Keyboardist/accordionist Bart Ramsey has been a mainstay of this scene over the past 20 years. On its second album, The Man Who Couldn’t Dream, Ramsey’s band Zazou City demonstrates a keen grasp on tradition while throwing some nice new ingredients into the pot via the leader’s well-crafted original material. From its onset, the album has a raw feel to it. All the tracks are live takes where the true musicianship of the band shines through without being obscured or exaggerated by studio trickery. Ramsey’s former VaVaVoom bandmate, guitarist Raphael Bas, is a fiery presence throughout. His frenetic, rhythmic picking is the engine behind upbeat tunes like “Joseph, Joseph,” but he also demonstrates sensitivity and restraint, especially in his beautiful solo on the ballad “Chagrin d’Amour.”
Zazou City is not, however, a guitar-based band by any means. With Ramsey at the helm, each musician is given ample opportunity to bring color to his original songs and also to a handful of lesserknown jazz tunes such as Patrick Saussois’ “Jojoswing.” As for the originals, Ramsey’s songwriting is at its best when he is weaving wistful tales of romance and loss, delivered in his matter-of-fact style of singing. The standout is the album’s title track, which captures Ramsey’s lyricism as a songwriter, singer and instrumentalist. On two tried-and-true standards, “Swing 39” and “That’s-A-Plenty”, the band isn’t all-around tight, but there is still some marvelous solo work from Ramsey’s longtime musical partner, violinist Neti Vaan, as well as from saxophonist Aurora Nealand and others. All in all, The Man Who Couldn’t Dream doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s an enjoyable listen from start to finish.