Word began to spread late last night: Gale Hess, said friends, died two days ago. Cancer is to blame, say those who've been close in recent years. Gale was young -- young enough to have been first violinist in the W.T. White Symphony Orchestra in 1973, at least. And she was among the most talented musicians ever to come from here; all those who got to hear her play with Cafe Noir or at the Dream Cafe with the Gyros String Quartet or at the Old Warsaw all by her striking lonesome or on Randy Erwin's Cowboy Stomp in 1988 or Josh Alan's The Worst! in '94 or with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page at Reunion Arena in March 1995 can attest to this. The sampler above and continued below, shot by Mark Trew when the band took to a UCLA stage for a live recording in 1998, only shows off a fraction of a fraction of her range -- classical to classic rock, honky-tonk to hepcat all in the time it takes most people to exhale.
Friends use words like "sweet," "supportive," "influential" and "brilliant" to describe the violinist and composer. I was fortunate enough to write -- frequently -- about Cafe Noir during my tenure as music editor in the early to mid-'90s. Cafe Noir, assembled by Hess and guitar virtuoso Norbert Gerl in 1985 after years of friendship, won countless Music Awards and played several award shows -- each one, our honor. The ensemble also provided the first track on our first rare-tracks compilation CD, back in 1996: a swinging iteration of "Back in the Saddle."
The band released only a handful of records -- 1988's eponymous debut, '93's Window to the Sea (from which this is taken), the farewell The Waltz King a year later -- all on Carpe Diem, all out of print. They were oft-haunting, occasionally jaunty, sometimes mysterious sound tracks to smoke-filled movies in which you wish you'd starred, foreign affairs with a twang. Each was anchored by Gale, Stéphane Grappelli by way of Bob Wills but so clearly meant for the arena. (When Gerl told her of the Page-Plant gig, Gale, who served as principal viola, was initially leery, I recall -- or maybe just nervous. I told her it was the coolest thing ever. She replied as though she didn't believe it: "Is it?" Or perhaps she just didn't buy it.)
Cafe Noir played Deep Ellum when it was a loose-knit "scene" consisting of bands in varying stages of being signed or dropped by what used to pass for major labels. Somehow, though, Cafe Noir fit in amongst the electricity and noise, filling Chumley's regularly with silent, spellbound audiences.
Of late Gale had been playing with Cirque du Soleil; a reviewer in 2007 called her "a stunning violinist," an understatement. I was a fan, as you can see, but also a friend for a long while, long ago. Only last week, while cleaning out some bookshelves, I came across a copy of a book she gave me on my 25th birthday -- Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, a dizzying thing, much like Gale. She wrote inside: "I hope this book brings you as much pleasure as it has me." She would have turned 57 on February 22. A memorial service is in the works for a later date.
The 1986 line-up of Cafe Noir, featuring Hess, Gerl, Kim Platko on guitar and Buddy Mohmed on bass:
And a slightly later iteration, before Window to the Sea, featuring Giampiero Scuderi on guitar, performing "La Manouche" off the first album: