Richard Smith’s virtuoso finger-style guitar skill makes his six-string acoustic instrument sound like a miniature orchestra. Nonetheless, Smith plays well with others.
A native of England, Smith formed the Hot Club of Nashville band shortly after his move to Music City in 2000. The innovative, 1930s European jazz band, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, featuring French violinist Stéphane Grappelli and Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, inspired the group.
“I like being part of the band,” Smith said of his founding of the Hot Club of Nashville. “It’s fun to take a bit of a back seat and let the other guys shine.
“When you’re doing solo stuff, of course, you’re getting (reaction) from the audience, but you’re not getting music back. But when you’re playing with a band, you’re hearing what other band members are doing, feeding off of that.”
The Hot Club of Nashville includes jazz singer Annie Sellick (five-time Nashville jazz artist of the year), violinist Aaron Till (Asleep At The Wheel, Raul Malo, Jerry Reed, Tanya Tucker) and guitarist-harmonica player Pat Bergeson (Chet Atkins, Lyle Lovett, Shelby Lynne, Kenny Rogers, Alison Krauss, Suzy Bogguss).
Reinhardt, along with American guitar masters Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, is among Smith’s greatest inspirations. Smith knew Atkins well and met Reed. Reinhardt died in 1953 at 43.
“Django created a style that hadn’t been done before,” Smith said. “Everything he did was so lyrical. His solos are almost melodies unto themselves. They’re so tastefully done, with so much feeling.”
Reinhardt and Grappelli created hot jazz.
“Those are the guys who forged the path for others,” Smith said. “Django was the Bill Monroe of hot jazz.”
The Hot Club of Nashville began as an instrumental group. After Sellick’s addition, the group evolved away from its Hot Club of France origins.
“It’s morphed from a gypsy jazz band to a swing band,” Smith said. “With Annie as the lead singer, we’re doing a lot of original material, but that Django influence never goes away.”
So it goes, too, for Grappalli’s influence.
“When you hear swing violin, it doesn’t matter who’s playing it, Grappelli is always going to be there,” Smith said.
Bringing a singer into the Hot Club of Nashville meant less improvisation and more arrangements.
“Things took more of an orchestrated shape,” Smith said. “We worked out how many solos everyone takes. We’ve got some harmony parts worked out. The songs are more structured because of the vocals.”
Moving away from gypsy jazz made sense for other reasons, too.
“There are a lot of very good gypsy jazz bands out there,” Smith said. “We figured rather than do the gypsy jazz thing, we’d just play like ourselves.”
Playing solo remains the majority of Smith’s in-concert work, but he also performs with his cellist spouse, Julie Adams, and in a duos with his fellow Hot Club of Nashville members Till and Bergeson respectively.
“I love playing with these guys,” Smith said. “It’s so much fun.”