Certain evenings in the mountain-ringed Alpine city of Grenoble, France, one can step away from the cobblestoned street into a narrow establishment called Café Bayard, which seems to have been literally squeezed by its neighbors on both sides into a slim strip of a bar, and winding one’s way around stools and through intimating heads, arrive into a back room where it is a full 10 degrees warmer than a step earlier and which serves as a rollicking impromptu concert space. Many nights, this is where you can find the swinging acoustic sounds of Les Quartiers de Boeuf, a jazz manouche band of French-based but quasi-international provenance.

I first encountered almost all of the members of Les Quartiers de Boeuf in the non-musical parts of their lives. There was Jérémy Bonvoisin, the unruly-haired roommate of a Canadian friend of mine, living in a grand apartment with co-op-like communal meals and group art projects. Fabrizio Pizzagalli was an Italian neuroscience doctoral student and leisure-time sailor to whom I gave English conversation lessons over café frappés in the Jardin de Ville. Jonathan Dioudonnat worked in the same elementary school where I gave English lessons (more accurately: yelled at kids in English). And Andrea Busch-surnommée-Andi was my fellow expat American friend — an equally dissatisfied public school English teacher, part-time barmaid, and partner in brownies and eggnog, trying to find solid footing and build a home internationally in uncertain post-college years.

At that time in 2009, the group was already in the womb as an amorphous gathering of weekly jam sessions chez Bonvoisin, and after the arrival of Busch as singer and structuring centerpiece it began to take shape, picking up members such as double bassist Elie Carton de Grammont, losing others, and defining its style with jazz classics and scat improvisation as it morphed into a coherent, professional group. After having worked their way into the Grenoble music scene through impromptu park concerts, open stage nights at the Bayard, and stints at local pubs, the group is gaining a fan base and expanding their reach. Now Les Quartiers de Boeuf — whose name is a cheeky play on the French word for “jam” as in “jam session” (boeuf) and which translates very inelegantly into English (and so we shall not try here) — is doing well as a part-time venture with a steady stream of shows at live music clubs and regional festivals as well as a solid performance schedule at private events.

Les Quartiers de Boeuf play a kind of acoustic swing grounded in the driving Eastern European guitar rhythm called manouche, a jazz style essentially invented by gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt in 1930s France and which continues fast and loose throughout Europe today. Les Quartiers de Boeuf describe themselves as “swing acoustique sauce manouche” — that is, acoustic swing with a measure of manouche sauciness, which gives a sense of the playful, heartfelt, and inexact feel of this genre of music. As they describe themselves on their Facebook page: “18 strings, of which two are vocal cords, some pieces of wood, a bit of a woman and a current of air. A few boys from the neighborhood who play around with rhythms jumping in the air, cheeky notes that don’t stay in place…Les Quartiers de Boeuf, to be enjoyed with a glass of good wine (preferably red).” Their songs start off on manouche footing through which they appropriate classic jazz standards such as “It Had to be You,” an Isham Jones favorite, making cameos in Casablanca and Annie Hall; and “Autumn Leaves,” which was originally a 1945 French composition called “Les feuilles mortes,” immortalized by the beloved French singer Edith Piaf. More recently they have reworked pop ditties such as The Police’s “Roxanne” and Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean.” This vast range of material and mix of styles makes for a unique sound that is eclectic, fun, and entirely danceable.

Bonvoisin, a PhD student in industrial engineering who boasts the darker mane of the group’s two disorderly-coiffed guitarists, says, “For me, this is the music that talks best about life…I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.” He’s careful to draw a distinction between what the group does and pure jazz manouche, which he says is generally instrumental, and which invites comparison to serious musicians and virtuoso; “I am not a virtuoso,” he says, “and not really serious either.”

Asked what a musician would need in order to be successful at jazz manouche, he says, “A strong right wrist! Manouche guitar is strenuous! Notably, because in this style, the guitar replaces the drums by playing an accompaniment we call ‘la pompe’ [strumming that gives a steady percussive rhythm, and also the swing beat].” Bonvoisin cites Tchavolo Schmitt’s “not too clean but very sincere” style as a model for his own playing.

Dioudonnat, who is perhaps the only male member who looks totally at home in the group’s informal costume of tailored black button-up, is the “current of air” of Les Quartiers de Boeuf. He plays the soprano saxophone and has a solid professional background as a musician and in music education. “In my opinion, jazz manouche speaks to the heart, based on feelings more than theory,” he says. “Although theorists come along from time to time to dampen the pleasure of it, jazz manouche — along with all Eastern European music — comes from the gut…I discovered Eastern European music from groups like Bratsch, and little by little I was led toward manouche swing.”

Dioudonnat dreams of taking the group out of Grenoble’s mountain valley — to France’s Atlantic coast for example, for the annual Jazz on the Water Festival, where they would play on a barge floating to a backdrop of waves, with a serene public listening from the water’s banks.

Busch, who now works in public policy for the city of Grenoble, grew up just outside of New York City singing to her great aunt’s piano accompaniments in oversized heels and dangling pearls. She watched jazz greats pass through the glittering city, and was handed down a solid appreciation of jazz music from her parents. As such, she draws on older jazz artists such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne, while keeping her ear out for new interpretations from artists like Esperanza Spalding, Diana Krall, and Melody Gardot. “I guess you could say that I’m somewhat inspired by what I hear when I’m listening to Regina Spektor,” she says. “Even though I might not do all the quirky, incongruous improvisation that she does, I am inspired by her willingness to push the envelope. That sort of inspiration translates in a rehearsal or in an informal concert.” First acquainted with jazz manouche through founders Stephen Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, Busch says she “found manouche music quite original and fun. But it was much, much later, in France that it finally hit me that I could participate in manouche with my voice.”

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