MARBLEHEAD — Whether it’s played in Paris, France, or Paris, Texas — or on 52nd Street in Manhattan — jazz is defined by its rhythm.
“Count Basie and Bob Wills, as different as they appear on the outside, they’re sharing a lot of similarities in the rhythm,” said Whit Smith, guitar player for Hot Club of Cowtown, a hot jazz and western swing trio that will play at Me&Thee Coffeehouse tomorrow night. “In the melody, the horns are going to sound so different from an out-of-tune violin. But underneath, they’re striving for the same thing.”
Smith and fiddle player Elana James have been striving for the same thing since 1994, when James was looking for steady work as a musician and placed an ad in the Village Voice.
“She had never heard of Bob Wills or Django Reinhardt,” Smith said. “I was a catalyst. I introduced her to it. She immediately liked the fact that you could make it your own, that she could use all the chops she had.”
Western Caravan, the 11-piece western swing band that Smith was forming, gave James a reliable source of employment, appearing at the Rodeo Bar on East 27th Street every Monday night.
But after two years, the pair left the Caravan behind and moved to California, where they lived on a beach in San Diego.
“We played in farmers markets and played for tips,” Smith said. “That is where the band started to take on its sound.”
That sound evolved in part as a result of paring down, from a large band to a duo, so that Smith and James took turns playing melody and rhythm.
“It forced us to figure out ways to sound bigger and fuller,” Smith said. “It’s almost like each person is doing two things. As a guitar player, I started to move the chords around.”
Smith defines this as playing “several versions of G” where most people would just play one, with the result that his chord hand is as busy as his strumming hand.
“Moving the chords around makes it more ornate,” he said. “It’s ornate rhythm.”
James also developed techniques for strumming her fiddle to provide rhythm while Smith is playing lead.
“We called it ‘chunky,’” he said. “She started going ‘chunk, chunk, chunk’ behind me.”
On the advice of friends, they also moved to Austin, Texas, where their sound landed them an agent and their first record deal, and where they were eventually joined by bass player Jake Erwin.
“In ’98, things really started to roll for us as Hot Club of Cowtown,” Smith said.
They have opened for Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Roxy Music; appeared on “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Mountain Stage” on NPR; and toured for the U.S. State Department, taking American music to Azerbaijan, Armenia, the Republic of Georgia and the Sultanate of Oman. Erwin has been inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame.
Their 11 previous albums have featured both original material and versions of tunes by favorite masters like Wills, the master of Texas swing.
Their latest, “Rendezvous in Rhythm,” mostly features interpretations of American standards from Tin Pin Alley, but also includes a song, “Dark Eyes,” that Smith describes as “probably Russian in origin.”
The album also explores the style of legendary Gypsy jazz guitar player Reinhardt, who formed the original “Hot Club” jazz band, which played in France in the ’30s and ’40s.
“In many ways, Django Reinhardt stands apart from European jazz,” Smith said, pointing to the “energy and fire and sense of cool” that made him a legend.
But Smith said Reinhardt was also distinguished by his absorption of American jazz, which he learned playing banjo as a teenager for European bands.
“He stands apart from all the other Gypsies,” Smith said. “I’ve bought all the other records, and none of them have the American influence.”
Reinhardt was originally dismissed by American critics as a novelty, but his legend has only grown over the years, among guitar players and fans on both sides of the Atlantic.
Smith’s devotion to the music he loves has often led to extensive research, not only in libraries, but also by looking up practicing musicians from the past.
But he is wary of bands, which he said have surfaced in the last 10 years, that copy Reinhardt’s music too slavishly.
“My playing is influenced by Django Reinhardt in a loose way,” he said. “We listen to Louis Armstrong and Bob Wills, and there’s other things in there.
“You immerse yourself because you want to learn. It’s like an oral tradition. But my ambition is to be my own jazz player. I don’t like to put any of that research on the bandstand. You ought to come up with variations that have charisma based on who you are.
“The audience picks up the energy and sincerity. They pick up what’s going on.”
If you go What: Hot Club of Cowtown, with Jon Shain When: Tomorrow. Doors open at 7:30 p.m., music starts at 8 p.m. Where: Me&Thee Coffeehouse, 28 Mugford St., Marblehead More information: $21 in advance, $24 at the door. 781-631-8987 or www.meandthee.org.