Musicians aren't known for their long-range planning.
Never could Venezuelan violinist Ricardo Ochoa, who moved to Savannah in 2000, predict he'd be playing gypsy jazz, that European swing music that's so evocative of a time and place a million miles away. In Georgia.
Ochoa came here from Pittsburgh to join the Savannah Symphony, which was dissolved only a few years later. "It was supposed to be a stepping stone for me to go to another symphony," he says. "I decided I wanted to expand my repertoire and start learning other styles so I can survive. And I did."
Ochoa plays jazz, bluegrass, and (with the Train Wrecks) chug-chug electric Americana. He's also kept up his classical chops as a member of the Savannah Philharmonic.
When Slovenia-born psychiatrist Sasha Strunjas arrived in 2011, he brought with him an immense knowledge of gypsy jazz guitar, and an even bigger talent for playing its tricky Hungarian and Romanian scales.
The first person he went looking for was Ricardo Ochoa. Strunjas' wife had accepted a job at Armstrong Atlantic State University, and during an interview trip, he'd seen Ochoa playing with Julie Wilde and Jackson Evans. And he never forgot it.
"Two days after he moved to Savannah, we began playing," Ochoa says. "And Sasha and I have been playing since then three or four times a week."
Along with their duo gigs, Ochoa and Strunjas form the centerpiece of Velvet Caravan, one of our city's most unique musical groups, and certainly the group most packed with virtuosi.
Check out Acoustic in Nature, the Kickstarter-funded debut Velvet Caravan album. The band will introduce the record Feb. 1 as part of Trinity United Methodist Church's new concert series.
More than just a carbon-copy of the gypsy jazz so eloquently laid down by the early 20th Century masters, guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli, Acoustic in Nature is wild, swinging and more fun than any of us really deserve. It's a delightful record.
That's in great measure because of the other members of the band—Jared Hall (keyboard and accordion), percussionist Jesse Monkman, and bassist Eric Dunn.
Hall came here from Austin, where he played with, among other bands, the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. "He's honky tonk, boogie woogie, fantastic player," Ochoa says. "He probably had no idea he'd be playing in a gypsy jazz band."
None of this musical mixology, of course, was planned. "Everything has been so organic with this band," Ochoa continues. "We never tried anything in particular. Eric Dunn just decided to show up and sit in with us one day, and it worked out. We get along well. We drink well together."
Monkman's main instrument is the cajon, a primitive wooden box with drum snares built inside. Ochoa: "He said 'Look, I built my own cajon.' He's an orchestra guy, he and I play together in the Philharmonic. But he'd never played with a band. He brought the cajon and man, he just had the right touch for it. It's hard to play percussion on gypsy jazz—it works on the Latin stuff—but he figured out the right groove for it."
Velvet Caravan's music is indeed strongly rooted the gypsy jazz of Reinhardt and his Hot Club de France. In abundance during their live shows, and in full flower on Acoustic in Nature, are rich veins of New Orleans jazz, Latin music and even Afro-Caribbean time signatures. Hall's dexterous piano-playing weaves in and out between the delicate lead lines of the guitar and the violin.
Ochoa is getting used to explaining it—or attempting to, anyway. "People always ask me 'What style of music is this?' I always answer 'It's European redneck music.' And they'll say 'OK, I got it! I understand now.'
"Gypsy jazz players in Europe love bluegrass music now," he adds. "And that's music from the country. They're more infatuated with bluegrass now than they are with jazz. I might be generalizing here, but think about who plays hillbilly music and bluegrass? Rednecks."
There were plans, to be sure, but they changed dramatically as the ranks of Velvet Caravan expanded.
"When Sasha and I started playing together, it was 'Here we go with another standard gypsy jazz band,'" Ochoa recalls.'
"But when we started adding guys, and everybody started bringing their own personality into it, we didn't want to force them and say 'No, you need to learn that language.' Instead, we learned to adapt to what the guy has to say and see how we can make it work."