Group evokes spirit
of the gypsies in its music

Tom Conway used to be a rock 'n' roller, but nowadays, you could call him a Maui gypsy.

That is, he's a gypsy at heart, not in actuality. He and his band, Gypsy Pacific, certainly evoke the freewheeling spirit of the light, spirited jazz made popular by Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli and the pivotal Quintet of the Hot Club of France from 1934 to 1939. This spry and energetic music has lived on throughout the years, evocative of intimate clubs where the swirling guitar and violin lines playfully intermingle with the smoke of many a Gauloise in the nighttime air.

Mulligan in Wailea on Monday nights and Ramon's in Wailuku on Wednesdays may be a far cry from "Le Hot Club de France," but it's good enough for Gypsy Pacific, and the quartet's profile will be upped a bit more after their appearances at the Hawaii International Jazz Festival this weekend both here and on Maui.

The band made their initial appearance on Conway's CD "Hot Gypsy Nights." Since then, rhythm guitarist Phil Benoit (brother of famed smooth jazz guitarist David) has joined guitarist Conway, violinist Willy Wainwright and bassist Marcus Johnson to round out the group. (Pianist Gene Argel continues to be an occasional guest and will sit in with the band during their festival appearances.)

"The band's about a year old," Conway said from Kahului, after teaching guitar class one afternoon last week. "The kind of gypsy music we play is in the idiom of other modern gypsy music groups like the Rosenberg Trio and Romane. A whole legion of bands like this and their fans are mostly based in Europe, but I feel it's our duty to carry that torch out here in Hawaii.

"The music we play is more swing-based. Nobody else on Maui plays this stuff and, for Hawaii, it's something definitely different."

With the exception of Wainwright, an American who moved here from Switzerland, everyone else in Gypsy Pacific are 20-plus-year veteran Maui musicians.

Conway initially moved to the Valley Isle back in 1977, but left seven years later to move to California for a year and a half to study with Jorge Strunz (of the duo Strunz & Farah).

"Jorge was the one who exposed me to gypsy jazz, but I really didn't go off the deep end into this music really until three years ago," Conway said.

"Gypsy music has a lot of fire and intensity to it and requires a real knowledge of the (guitar). Coming from a rock background myself, this music feels good to play and easy for people to like -- it's not so esoteric a music as most would come to think," he said.

While all the tunes on "Hot Gypsy Nights" are covers, a mix of modern with Reinhardt classics such as "Minor Swing" and "Nuages," Conway said an all-original CD is forthcoming, "all in this style, ready to record."

And even though he and the other members of Gypsy Pacific also play in other hotel and convention bands, "this band is our heart and soul," he said. "The music really challenges our musicianship, and we do it completely out of love. Somewhere down the line, we'd love to the Django fest in Seattle, and do a couple of different festivals in Europe, but I think it's more important that we get our name out, first on Maui, then Oahu. Our core fan base is growing every week, and we're committed to spreading gypsy jazz in Hawaii the best we can."

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