Some 12 years after Craig Sharmat created his first “gypsy jazz” project for licensing purposes on assignment for what is now the Warner Chappell Productions Library, the guitarist and veteran film and TV composer’s passion for the style and desire to master gypsy guitar has evolved into a full blown creative addiction.
It’s reached such a fever pitch that instead of immediately following up his hit 2013 urban jazz album Bleu Horizons with a like-minded sequel, he immersed in the music scene of his new adopted hometown of Santa Barbara and formed The Idiomatiques – which became the first Gypsy Jazz band in history to score a hit on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart. True to its title, Sharmat’s latest collection Nouveau is a fresh, visionary work that finds the multi-talented artist in full on hybrid mode, artfully fusing the funky urban side of smooth jazz with Django Reinhardt inspired gypsy jazz guitar.
It’s a bold, dynamic approach that builds on the extraordinary critical acclaim and chart success he’s enjoyed these past years in both genres. Chosen one of the year’s Critics’ Choice Ten Best in Jazziz magazine, Bleu Horizons – designed as a spirited musical travelogue – included the Top 5 Billboard single “A Day in Paris,” the Top 10 single “Agua Do Brasil” and the Top 20 single “Surfing the Caspian Sea.” The single “C’est la Vie” from Craig Sharmat with the Idiomatiques’ second album Out on the Town also hit the Top 30 on the contemporary jazz chart.
While Bleu Horizons was filled with exotic sounds and rhythms representing various locales throughout the globe, it was in essence a groove driven, in the pocket smooth jazz experience, featuring guest appearances by genre greats like Peter White and Rick Braun. In the spirit of putting as much organic, Djangofied gypsy magic as possible into Nouveau, Sharmat surrounds his transcendent and deeply soulful guitarisma with three core members of the Idiomatiques: renowned accordionist, keyboardist and composer Brian Mann (Larry Carlton, Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald), bassist, vocalist and jazz educator Kim Collins and the group’s newest member, George Quirin, who adds his flamenco guitar energy to a snappy yet sensual twist on the traditional French valse (waltz) “Indifference.” The song is a standard high in the gypsy jazz repertoire that serves as a showcase for Sharmat’s imaginative acoustic brilliance.
Other contributing musicians include keyboardist Greg Manning, accordina master Ludovic Beier, electric bassist Hussain Jiffry, drummers Rayford Griffin and Eric Valentine, violinists Christiaan Hemert and Nick Coventry, saxophonist and flutist Mark Hollingsworth and trumpeter Chris Tedesco.
“Except for when I’m doing my TV and film related composing work, you can find me sequestered in my studio, obsessively working on my gypsy jazz guitar technique,” says Sharmat, who created a second licensing catalog in that style just over five years ago and again with the Idiomatiques last year. “All of the Idiomatiques live close to one another in Santa Barbara and we do regular gigs here. As I’ve investigated the sound of more modern day players and become more proficient myself, I wondered what would happen and how far it could go if I recorded smooth jazz with a gypsy jazz influence. Nouveau is the wonderful result, with the French guitar sound prominent on all tracks except for ‘Line It Up.’ The Idiomatiques’ song ‘C’est La Vie’ set the tone for the new album in a sense, because I realized that if the strings were played in a certain way that still incorporated proper gypsy jazz technique it could be great as a lead instrument in a funky groove jazz context.”
The spirit of Django Reinhardt is the emotional core of the 11-track collection, which includes explosive twists on three of the Belgian born legend’s classics. The opening track “Groove En Mineur,” an original composition highlighted by the exuberant duality of Sharmat’s snappy guitar and Nick Coventry’s sensual violin; a sensual, string sweetened bossa nova spin on Django’s “Melodie Au Crepuscule, featuring beautiful French accordion played by Brian Mann; and an R&B/funk swirl through the normally swinging “Place De Brouckre” featuring dancing violin and Greg Manning’s old school soul-jazz Rhodes flavored key textures. “I’m especially proud of ‘Melodie,’” Sharmat says, “because traditionally the song is a Django swing thing and he never heard bossa in his life!” Sharmat pays homage to Django on two infectious originals, “Get Your Djang On” (a swirl of guitar silk, simmering horns and dreamy atmospheres) and the whimsical, old-timey jam “Cutie Pie,” a colorful dance featuring Sharmat’s snap and Christiaan Hemert’s high energy violin.
Other key tracks on Nouveau are Sharmat’s flirtatious, light funk/blues romp through “Coquette,” a late 1920’s Guy Lombardo gem that’s become a gypsy jazz standard; the seductive, gently exotic, string caressed “Rio Lullaby,” which features the Ludovic Beier’s glorious and romantic accordina solo and weavings throughout; and the stark, dusty, atmospheric new agey closer “Setting Out Alone,” which musically chronicles the emotion of leaving one phase of life and starting anew. Perhaps the most urban jazz oriented tune is the burning, bluesy, brass and organ fired “Line It Up” (featuring a burning electric guitar solo by Sharmat) and the feisty, hypnotic synth driven dance track “Swing This,” which finds the guitarist on a buoyant, trippy pop/electro-swing adventure.
A multiple award winning composer, Craig Sharmat’s earliest musical influences while he was studying classical piano during his childhood in Manhattan, Queens and Westchester were Prokofiev and Copland. Challenged by the meeting of young guitarist Jonathan Davis (who later became a notable jazz pianist, at summer camp in Massachusetts at age 13, he switched to guitar and opened up to progressive rock and jazz—with a palette that included everything from Crosby, Stills and Nash and Mahavishnu Orchestra to Larry Carlton, Pat Metheny and George Benson. After attending both Syracuse University and the University of Arizona (as a classical/jazz music major), Sharmat studied guitar at GIT (now part of Musicians Institute) in Los Angeles and began gigging around the city.
After key stints with contemporary jazz greats, saxophonist Ronnie Laws and singer Randy Crawford, Sharmat launched his career as a film and television composer—starting with a long term stint on Disney’s “Kids Incorporated” composing and arranging songs for future stars Brittany Murphy, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Eric Balfour. After segueing into scoring sports specials and animation series, his TV work grew to include everything from “America’s Most Wanted” and the Court TV series “Suburban Secrets” to Investigation Discovery Channel’s “Nightmare Next Door,” the MTV Movie Awards, songs for “CSI: Miami” and trailers for the films “Anchorman,” “King Kong,” “Spiderman 3,” “Ghostrider,” “Live Free Die Hard” and others. He’s scored multiple Disney ads, library music for Warner Chappell (including live orchestra dates), and games through Design Works. His most recent endeavors include cues for “Pawn Stars” and cues for “Tiny House Hunters” on HGTV.
In the recording realm, Sharmat worked on rap artist Skeelo’s Grammy nominated I Wish; arranged and programmed for Rick Braun’s popular 2005 release Yours Truly; and did string arrangements for A Peter White Christmas, featuring Braun and Mindi Abair, and guitarist Blake Aaron’s album Encantadora. More recently, he produced tracks on Boyz II Men’s doo-wop oriented 2017 album Under the Street Light. He has also arranged for Yanni’s live “Voices” tour. A plethora of cues that Sharmat created for “America’s Most Wanted” (for segments that were pre-empted by the capture of the criminal) inspired him to launch, run and operate Scoredog Music, a continually growing library that currently features over 3,500 original pieces for media.
“Even though I formed The Idiomatiques in the meantime,” Sharmat says, “it’s taken me six years to return to my solo recording career. As much as I loved Bleu Horizons, I wanted to fashion a completely new vibe this time around rather than essentially say the same thing again in a different way. Nouveau was not about consciously creating hits but discovering a new musical voice for myself, blending two of my great musical passions and showcasing how far my technique has come while working with these incredible musicians. A lot of people who listen to contemporary jazz aren’t aware of traditional gypsy jazz and I think Nouveau might be the perfect bridge allowing them to experience it.”