It’s been a long musical journey that led guitarist, singer/songwriter and bandleader Tony Airoldi to the release of his first solo album, 2015’s Where the Light Gets In. And it starts, as he says “at the beginning-ish.”
That would be the mid-50s, when Airoldi, growing up in Dallas, got turned on his sister’s 45s. “Bo Diddly, Little Richard, guys like that,” he says. His first guitar followed shortly, just in time for his 11th birthday. A little later, Airoldi got swept up in the folk revival, learning the banjo and the Pete Seeger songbook while sneaking into shows to hear bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, and others. Like many Texas musicians, Airoldi was being molded by the array of musical styles that happen to criss-cross in the Lone Star State.
In 1970, Airoldi moved to Austin, a city that was to Texas what San Francisco was to California, a musical mecca. Airoldi fell in with Balcones Fault, a wild show band whose elaborate productions and anarchic sense of humor made them favorites at Austin venues like the Armadillo World Headquarters. He also logged time with another beloved Austin musical institution, Greezy Wheels.
Cut to the year 2000. “I had always loved Django Reinhardt – what guitar player doesn’t – but it never occurred to me that I could play his music. I started getting to get together with my friend Larry Pollack and we would spend afternoons drinking wine and playing his songs just for fun. We decided to call the group Django’s Moustache. In 2006, we released a CD, which I love to this day, called South Austin Gypsy Jazz. I still learn Django solos just for fun.”
But, he said, “Two years ago (in 2013) I decided it was time to go back to being a singer/songwriter and playing my Strat. I missed the blues. I’ve probably written several hundred songs and I missed performing them.”
“So,” Airoldi continues, “I’ve made this new CD which I call Where The Light Gets In. It’s dark in places but that’s how you know where the light is, right? When I make a record I try to produce a living, breathing thing, something you can put on the stereo, hang out with and go about your business. If I do have fourth act in this life this would be it.”
Tony Airoldi’s first solo album, When the Light Gets In, is all over the map… in a good way. The veteran Austin guitarist has performed over the years with everyone from Beat poet Allen Ginsberg to Houston bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, as well as helming his own gypsy jazz/Texas music fusion group. All of those myriad influences and more are reflected in an album whose musical tones shift, mirror-like, through an array of mood, melody and emotion.
Airoldi himself acknowledges as much in the album’s opening track, “Southern Star,” a languid, Dixie-flavored rocker in which he sings, “We are all connected, we are all the same/But we each bring something different to this game.”
There is humor here (the shout-out to a celebrated, perhaps even legendary “50 Pound Chihuahua”) and unexpected juxtapostions; “Lucky 7” is a sobering tale of someone hitting bottom – A homeless derelict? A junkie ? – but the lyric is set against a guitar-and-accordion Edith Piaf-style arrangement.
Likewise, “Evil Twin” sees Airoldi regarding his silver-tongued devil of an alter ego in the mirror, but instead of a brooding or bluesy melody, the song is illuminated by a loping, reggae-flavored track. (“Sometimes I like the things he makes me do,” Airoldi sings, a little wistfully).
There are echoes of other artists who may (or may not) have caught Airoldi’s ear over the years. “Leave It Alone” and “Good To Go” both echo Dire Straits in their loping, fleet-footed guitars and arrangements. And, lyrically and structurally, “Dangerous Age,” a jaunty rocker with a cautionary tale, could be a great lost Bruce Springsteen track.
South Austin Gypsy Jazz, by Tony Airoldi and friends, is a sultry, bracing, taut fusion of jazz, swing, Spanish and Latino influences and an indefinable dose of something special from the Lone Star State.
Paying tribute to the legacy of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli, among others, Airoldi and his cohorts take nimble acoustic flight on a dozen songs that range from the titular “gypsy jazz” to waltzes, blues-tinted instrumentals and accordion-accented French ballads. From the opening number, “Adios Muchachos,” a showcase for Airoldi’s fleet-fingered fretwork to the set-closing “Mediterranean Blues,” with its almost percussive playing and languid, sun-drenched groove, the album never sacrifices groove for empty flash.
Airoldi acknowledges the influences from which he draws by covering Reinhardt’s and Grapelli’s “Minor Swing” and the classic “Nuages”. Combining classics with original material, blending countries, cultures and musical stylings and weaving it all together in one beguiling package, South Austin Gypsy Jazz is a diverse and enticing musical journey.
~ John T. Davis
“Now and again a release comes in I know nothing about. Sometimes putting one on is like opening a thoughtful gift – a surprise, something you wouldn’t have gotten for yourself, but welcome and refreshing. This experience was just that – a simple, impeccably produced collection of original instrumentals. Normally I like words with my music and tend to forget the impact and importance of other musical expressions; this is a welcome reminder. Whether for meditation, dinner parties, road trips or housecleaning, his compositions soothe the soul, energize the spirit and tickle the ears, a celebration of the diversity of Austin made music. A perfect gift for all seasons and any occasion, this little jewel mixes Texas roots with classical sensibilities. My prediction is you’ll want two at least – one to keep and one to give.”
~ Eve McArthur – Music City Texas
“Guitarist and former Greezy Wheel Airoldi avoids the trap of much instrumental music – especially some new age stuff – by developing some nice song themes here. His acoustic guitar playing is rich and forceful, and the keyboards of Leah Rummel and Cole El Saleh provide a lively and lovely counterpoint. Not just pleasant like most music without words I hear, this is enjoyable stuff.”
~ Rob Patterson – Austin Chronicle