North Bay native and vocalist Stella Heath specializes in evoking bygone eras of music, both as titular singer of the Billie Holiday Project and as bandleader for long-running Gypsy-jazz group French Oak, who are about to formally change their name to Bandjango Collectif upon the release of their new album by the same name.
French Oak got its start in 2014, when Heath moved back to her hometown of Petaluma after residing in New York for a decade. “I contacted (guitarist) Gabriel Pirard to start a jazz band,” says Heath. “I actually had the idea to name the band Bandjango in the beginning, but we wanted to target wineries and venues like that so we thought of French Oak. Now we’ve grown out of that and want to go back to the original I liked.”
After releasing a debut album in 2016 as a trio, French Oak also grew in size, to include Heath, Pirard and James Inciardi on tenor, baritone and soprano saxophone; Skyler Stover on standup bass; and Jamie Foster on drums and percussion. After recording their sophomore album—Bandjango Collectif—over the course of the last year, the group decided the album’s release would be the best time to transition to the new band name. This month, the group plays their final shows as French Oak on Sept. 20 at Redwood Café in Cotati and on Sept. 27 at Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco, before Bandjango Collectif makes its official debut on Oct. 2 at Blue Note Jazz Club in Napa.
While the name is changing, the music remains the same, French chanteuse–inspired sound.
“I’ve loved Edith Piaf ever since I was a kid,” Heath says. “I also loved Louis Armstrong, and as I started to discover jazz I was introduced to this whole genre of Gypsy-jazz made famous by Django Reinhardt.”
While Reinhardt’s French-jazz guitar inspired the band’s sound, Heath notes they’ve added more styles to incorporate Spanish and American jazz. International pop tunes are also mixed into the group’s repertoire, offering classic and contemporary styles of music in their live shows. “I want everybody to be welcome at our shows,” says Heath. “It’s a very comfortable vibe and a celebratory atmosphere.”
French Oak (soon to be re-named Bandjango Collectif) plays Friday, Sept. 20, at Redwood Cafe, 8240 Old Redwood Hwy, Cotati. 8pm. $10. 707.795.7868.