How’s this for a New Year’s resolution: Turn off the radio.
Plenty of new and original music is being made right now but “it takes some digging to find it,” says Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble guitarist Christo Ruppenthal. His band travels Saturday to Portage Center for the Arts, giving residents a chance to expand their musical horizons.
“With the internet and digital music distribution, the world is at our fingertips. I’ve always been a fan of niche music,” said Ruppenthal, whose instrumental jazz group formed about 15 years ago. “Even as a young person, I dug deep into different musical genres.”
Gypsy swing, or gypsy jazz, is a blending of American 1930s swing-era jazz with Eastern European folk music and traditional Romani Gypsy music, Ruppenthal said. His general descriptions of Caravan’s sound included “fun and upbeat,” and “high-quality acoustic music.”
“I definitely feel like our music appeals to many different people,” the Madison resident said in an email. “In some ways it’s definitely jazz but not in the heady way that modern jazz is.
“I think it’s much more accessible. Besides jazz fans, we definitely have found fans who are more typically listeners of bluegrass, Americana, world music, and even pop music. There’s a fiery technical side to it, but I think it’s very emotional music as well.”
Ruppenthal is an amateur ethnomusicologist, for years studying music in its cultural context. For audiences, Caravan will delve into the history of its sound because its members believe most people — whether they know it or not — desire much more than “just straight entertainment.”
Attendees on Saturday might, for example, learn something about Django Reinhardt, “one of the legends of early jazz guitar,” Ruppenthal said. Reinhardt was a Roma musician playing French Musette music in the late 1920s when he heard the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, providing Reinhardt with the inspiration for his group, “The Quinette of the Hot Club of France” in 1934.
Some people are discovering the gypsy-jazz sound for the first time eight decades after Reinhardt. While Caravan’s primary influence is Reinhardt, the band pulls from American swing, jazz, Latin, Parisian Waltz, European Folk and other vintage jazz sources.
“It’s funny, but after 15-plus years performing, I’ve discovered that the professional musician community is smaller than you might think,” Ruppenthal said of how his group got started. Each member is from Wisconsin. Kevin Tipple (upright bass) joined the band at its onset, with Greg Smith (clarinet) joining a few years later.
Other members, like Scott Hlavenka (guitar), joined Caravan about a year and a half ago just ahead of the band’s trip to Bangalore, India, to play at the Windmills Craftworks jazz club.
“We basically have all met each other through mutual musical friends over the years,” Ruppenthal said.
Caravan has released five albums since 2003 and performs live in concert halls, festivals and jazz clubs. The digital music service Spotify uses Caravan music for its gypsy jazz playlist, including its live performance of “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” which has been played on the service more than 600,000 times.
“It’s much more common for me to play an antique 78 rpm record on a crank Victrola than it is for me to listen to Spotify,” Ruppenthal said. “That being said, I’m very pleased” that people are discovering Caravan on Spotify.
Despite his support for people to find new music anywhere, he believes the best place for music is live performance.
“You won’t find it on the radio,” Ruppenthal said.