We Brits like to think of ourselves as European—or 55 percent of us do, judging by a 2023 YouGov survey on Brexit “Bregret” (well, quelle surprise). But even before my beloved EU passport was prised from my baguette-baking hands in 2016, it’s fair to say that the UK was never really qualified to be in this Continental club: we don’t dress well enough, our food isn’t good enough, and our music isn’t cool enough—the last of which is well evidenced by Corner Café.
The latest offering from guitarist Greg Ruby and accordionist Steve Rice (a Torontonian and a Philadelphian respectively) is a love letter to old-time Euro jazz and the forms it inspired, featuring Parisian guitars and South American rhythms in a Pan-Atlantic playlist almost designed to taunt “Remoaners” like me. It’s a twelve-track disc of original joint compositions by Ruby and Rice—with the exception of tracks 11 and 12, which they penned individually.
Ruby was at the leading edge of the naughties Reinhardt revival, has previously released chart-topping albums, has taught manouche guitar at Django in June and DjangoFest NW, and authored the Pearl Django Play-Along Book back in 2005. His collaborations with Rice go back to 2013, when the accordionist invited him to take part in a recording project for TV. They were soon writing music together and this album, released late in 2022, is the long-awaited result.
I first popped it on for a long drive through the Cotswold countryside, a journey which took me down twisting farm tracks betwixt high hedges in glorious August sunshine, swallows soaring overhead while sheep lazed idly in emerald green pastures. It could easily have been the French bocage circa 1934—a dreamy illusion made all the more tangible by this country-hopping soundtrack. (The only things missing were a deux chevaux, a good bouteille du vin and a Gauloise-smoking mademoiselle.)
It begins in Paris with “Place du Swing,” a toe-tapping shuffle inspired by Django Reinhardt’s Hot Club Quintette. This puts Ruby and Rice front and center—particularly the latter, who solos so sparsely and nimbly on his instrument that I first assumed it to be a melodica. “Valse Volant” is another francophile number in the bal-musette style—that accordion-rich style which many would associate with pavement cafes and la resistance—springing deftly between major and minor tones in a roller coaster of aurally-inspired emotion.
“Where Does It Go From Here?” is a bossa nova piece which sees Rice take the piano stool, transporting the album briefly to South America. It stays there for “Mambo Tonight,” another Latin-inspired dance number which again has Rice showing us what he can do with 88 keys at his disposal, heading north to New Orleans for the very American-sounding “Rhythm and Rye.” The headliners don’t hog the spotlight throughout, though, with different tracks allowing their bandmates ample chance to make their talents heard.
Title track “Corner Café” gives clarinetist Saul Cline plenty of room to stretch his fingers, while the dreamily Hawaiian-sounding “Twilight Blue” makes heavy use of Raphael McGregor’s lap steel guitar. Meanwhile, “Salut du Combo” features the album’s only upright bass solos from Michael Glynn, “Carte Blanche” sports rare drum solos from Julian MacDonough and “The Cobblestone Street” sees a one-off appearance from Brandon Shane Vance slinging some Grappelli-esque fiddle—all things I would have liked to hear more of.
But I can’t really complain about this delightful disc, which boasts superb production by co-stars Ruby and Rice. It has brightened up a British summer which has been only very intermittently sunny, with its mainly dance-friendly numbers. Be sure to check it out on Bandcamp, where it can be had for the pas cher prix of just $10.