Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt and Harry Volpe NY 1946

While I didn’t discover the beauty, wonder and power that is the music of Django Reinhardt until much later in life and career, it had a tremendous effect on me and I purchased a few discs and listened to them carefully. As you will see this turned into “quite a few discs” eventually, and while I wouldn’t claim to be any kind of expert on Django and his music, I will pretend I am for the remainder of this page at least.

Verve Jazz Masters 38 ***** My first Django Reinhardt disc and still one of my favorites, this retrospective collection has a ton of great performances that serve as a great introduction/overview of Django’s storied career. Starting with the earliest days of The Hot Club of France, this collection features 16 tunes including Django’s energetic, kinetic, and inventive takes on jazz standards of the day like Honeysuckle Rose and Sweet Georgia Brown, plus his own early creations like Daphné and H.C.Q Strut (a very underrated tune). Of course, his very famous foil Stephane Grappelli is along on many of the tunes including the more famous Django/Stephane gems like Djangology, Love’s Melody, Belleville (one of the team’s original contributions to the jazz catalogue) and Liza. There are also a few tunes from the “clarinet” era of the 1940s including the classic Nuages, the very gypsy-influenced Anniversary Song, and Swing 48. The disc ends with Django’s amplified version of Night and Day that was recorded only months before his death and is one of my all-time favorite of his performances.

Not only does this disc serve as a great primer for the casual listener who wants to “find out what Django was all about,” it also is a GREAT ILLUSTRATION of the breadth of his guitar playing abilities, chops, composition skill and the effect his playing had on all manner of player starting with people like Les Paul, Johnny Smith and Barney Kessel. There are many introduction discs one could pick to get acquainted with the world’s first real guitar hero, but I believe this one fits the bill nicely. In addition to the great combo of songs, the sound is pretty good considering the age and condition some of the masters. While some Django veers toward unlistenable because of quality issues, the takes on this disc for the most part sound crisp and clear. Highly recommended!

Django Reinhardt In Solitaire *** This disc is not for public consumption, but really serves as an aid for guitar players trying to learn Django’s playing style, specifically all of his solo improvisation pieces. Because that is what this disc contains, hence the name…In Solitaire. Over the course of his career Django recorded quite a few of these pieces and they are all represented here. The first, the fiery and completely pyrotechnic Improvisation #1 sets a high bar for any guitarist attempting to reproduce it. Improvisation #3 and #5 are also fairly difficult while Improvisations #2 and #4 are approachable after some serious practice. All together there are 15 tracks including some alternate takes of Improvisation 2 and the fairly well-known Echoes of Spain, Naguine, and Parfum. There are also some improvised guitar choruses and solo takes on Django standards Nuages and Belleville, but here the recording quality slips a bit unfortunately. These tracks sound like they might have been the equivalent of a 1940s practice tape and while they are interesting as historical snapshots, I don’t know that they are as useful, interesting, beautiful and amazing as the rest of the disc. But, as I said, while most of these solo pieces show up on Django retrospective collections, listening to a disc of nothing but these pieces is not something anyone but a guitar player is going to do, but if you are interested to learn…dive in!

JSP Record Box Sets

As you scroll through the rest of this page you will see that I have a whole lot of Django Reinhardt music. I purchased these excellent box sets in the mid-2000s and combined with single discs, I can say that I’m satisfied I’ve heard all of the best Django had to offer. These box sets are all very well done and all three were remastered by British mastering engineer/music restorer Ted Kendall, so the audio quality is excellent! I’m not going to go into detailed explanations because we’re talking almost 100 songs on each set, but suffice to say, just these 3 (out of the 7 that are available) cover most of Django’s 1935-1950 career. In addition to an exhaustive look at his work with his various groups, there is also some material from Django’s sessions with others, or from his own composition work like his 1937 Bolero, which did not feature anyone from the Hot Club of France. I’ve heard all of this music many times over the past fifteen or so years and I’m really glad I bought it because it is the best way to discover the dept of Django’s talent and pick up on all of his licks and tricks.

The Classic Early Recordings ***** All of the earliest Django and Stephane Grappelli performances with the Hot Club of France. Rippin’ versions of Tiger Rag, Honeysuckle Rose, Hungaria, Swing ’39, Them There Eyes, Stompin’ At Decca, Daphné and It Had to Be You along with all of the Freddie Taylor vocal classics, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, After You’ve Gone, Georgia…, Nagasaki, Shine and I’se Muggin’. This is the perfect collection for anyone who favors the original/early Hot Club sound and style.

Paris and London ***** This collection covers the years 1937-1948, so while there is some overlap with songs on the first collection, there are also plenty of new tunes and, of course, a much different sound since Hubert Rostaing’s clarinet replaced Stephane Grappelli’s violin as WW II began. This box set contains many tunes that have become the modern Gypsy Jazz canon: Minor Swing, I’ve Found a New Baby, Minor Blues, Si Tu Savais, Nuages, Viper’s Dream, Blues Clair, All of Me, Ol’ Man River, Coquette, Django’s Tiger, Oh Lady Be Good, and Swing 42. It’s amazing how many great performances there are on these discs and overall this might be my favorite period as it is the peak of Django’s career. I also enjoy “outlier” songs like Dinette, Oiseaux Del Illes, Douce Ambience, and the various solo guitar improvisations. This was also the period that Django the composer really took off so Debussy by way of Django begins to appear in jazz with numbers like Lentement Mademoiselle, Crepuscle, Manoir Des Mes Reves, and Fleur D’Ennui.

Django in Rome **** The Rome Sessions were a reunion and final collaboration between Django and Stephane and 3 discs of this 4 disc set are devoted to their last recordings. Of course, this means that there are quite a few repeats of stuff they had done earlier in their career but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Both players, especially Django had grown immeasurably since they had last played together and the new group which included piano and drums was a far different sound than the Hot Club of the late 30s. There were also some new tunes and standards such as All the Things You Are that they had never attempted before. Some of my favorites from these sessions include How High the Moon, The World is Waiting on the Sunrise, I Can’t Get Started, Troublant Bolero, Brazil, After You’ve Gone, Artillerie Lourde, and What is This Thing Called Love? The final side is Django amplified without Grappelli working out some new material: Dream of You, Place De Brouckere, Micro, and new takes on others like Dinette, and Nuages. The only reason this set rates one less star is that the consistency of the material isn’t quite as strong as the other two sets. Some of the stuff that was chosen doesn’t seem to work or perhaps Django was bored with it. He certainly showed more life on his amplified recordings released on subsequent sessions.

Django Reinhardt 1947-1953 ***** Culled from sessions that occurred in 1947 and the early 1950s, this GREAT collection contains many of Django Reinhardt’s final musical statements. The Brussels sessions, recorded in 1947, begin the experimental/transitional arc of Django’s later career, which would continue on other sources, ie. the Rome sessions from 1949-50. The fourth electric side of “Rome” contained fun tunes like Micro, Dream of You, Place De Brouckere, Double Whiskey, and amplified versions of Minor Swing and Dinette that seem in line with the new Django, but the session(s) seem to suffer from lack of purpose, joy and a good recording environment. But back on this Hot Club of France Quintet CD (for stuff from 1950-1953) there are many (well recorded) sessions from Paris that portray a Django completely cut loose from his past. Django bounced back from severe apathy and disenchantment to record a really nice blast of music that is refreshingly original, yet true to his earlier roots. He had experienced a loss artistic stature because of the end of the Swing Era and his failure to connect with a large audience in the United States on his 1946-47 tour with Duke Ellington. His health (he lost many teeth) and financial situation, along with a temporary loss of muse, did nothing to allay his legendary apathy and dark moods. However, he gradually recovered a sense of purpose, thanks to a new music, a new way of playing guitar and willing young players eager to jam with the master.

The first 9 cuts on the CD were recorded in 1947 with a band that featured one of his favorite sidemen, Hubert Rostaing, on clarinet. These tracks include “bridge” songs that show Django’s movement from the Swing Era to the 1950s: Just One of Those Things, Songe D’Automne, Del Salle, and Porto Cabello, with other more obvious nods to the destination including Duke and Dukie and Babik (Bi-Bop). All of these tunes feature Eugene Vees playing the swing style pomp guitar to varying degrees which helps make them sound like they could’ve been on the Rome Sessions. Django hasn’t completely left the past behind yet. With Double Whiskey (track 10) through the end of the disc, Chez Moi, Django and his band are completely reborn; there are no pompé guitar rhythms, there IS plenty of brass (Hubert Fol, Roger Guerin and Bernard Hullin) and drums (Pierre Lemarchand) and a very mainstream (almost American) small combo sound. Through it all, of course, is a whole bunch of absolutely amazing guitar playing. Like the final take of Night and Day, Django channels every electric guitar technique and sound from the future into his final batch of recordings.

Porto Cabello begins with a very haunting melody, reminiscent of Debussy perhaps, with Django playing spare figures behind. The amplified acoustic Selmer has the ability to sound semi-acoustic or semi-electric depending on Django mood. After the intro the song kicks into a key and tempo change that is completely out of the blue that features a great, very amplified solo by a Django. After a slurry, quick solo by Rostaing, the song returns to the intro tempo and fades out on that melody just as quickly as it had changed initially. It calls to mind passing boats in the harbor or a street scene even though it is subtitled “Il Mexicana”. Duke and Dukie, another Django original, is a very simple harmonic progression that allows space for Django to inject cool chord stabs, octaves, and a whole flurry of single-note lines around a great rhythmic pulse. It’s a very cool early 50s vibe and there are two takes of this song on the disc. Babik (also called Bi-Bop), named for Django’s son is built off of the Dizzy Gillespie early 40s Salt Peanuts riff. Django and company take the song to new dimensions and they sound as modern and on it as Bireli Lagrene’s Gipsy Project circa 2004, the difference being that Django is playing with a drummer, Pierre Fouad. This adds a completely new dimension to the sound of a Django band and gives him a more universally recognized jazz sound. Other titles, that feature the horns of Hubert Fol, Roger Guerin and Bernard Hullin, like Double Whiskey, Crazy Rhythm, Keep Cool, and Fine and Dandy (all covers except Double Whiskey) sound very American…almost Vegas/Hollywood Movie cool. It’s a sound that Django and his Quintet wear well and I believe he was probably very happy with how these recordings came out. Not only does he sound superb as a guitarist, writer, leader, but his band is hot and plays the material well.

Other tracks are total guitar standouts — Impromptu, which is Django’s hit, Dark Eyes redone as a frantic and angular bebop; Fleche D’or, a completely dizzying guitar and sax extravaganza that anticipates hard rock and fusion; the cool, laid back, Latin vibe of Troublant Bolero; and the suave, crazy out-of-control 50s sound of Nuits De Saint Germaine De Pres, which may be the most exciting recording of Django’s career. On all of these tracks one can hear Django spinning his ideas out on the fly; the master improviser with new tools, a new format and a new lease on life…and art. This is also apparent on all of the blues/rhythm and blues found on the disc: I Cover the Waterfront, DR Blues, Dream of You, Vamp, Le Soir, and Deccaphonie. Django always enjoyed playing the blues and his understanding of the blues is another element that I think was expanded on his trip to the US because these blues all have an atmosphere that was lacking on his previous efforts. Deccaphonie also features superb vibes played by Martial Solal! And then there was the ballad that defined this whole period, Anouman (A new man). The very colorful and almost wistful melody (head) line is played by Hubert Fol and Django only solos only on the middle eight. But it is the chords fills, slides and slurs and the very ghostly reverb presence of his guitar throughout the song that gives it such a Jazz Noir sound. Here, at the end of his career Django was no longer just a composer or improviser; he had transcended his station and synthesized all of his influences and life experiences into pure art and music.

The one definable quality that is constant in Django’s playing that you won’t find in most modern gypsy jazz is his powerful emotionalism, subtlety and minimalist expression. While Django could play complicated arpeggios and octagonic scale patterns at blinding speed with the best of them, he often chose to play slim, bent figures and quiet slurs to accentuate the emotional colors of his music. He also made great use of space and time to let the music breathe. Even in the frenzied days of bebop, the world moved at a much slower pace than it does today and this definitely accounts for the speed and which people hear and feel. However, it is on this collection of songs, with Django’s full maturity as an accomplished player/composer realized that what he chooses not to play is what makes these cuts so interesting. This is one reason that he still reigns over the genre; his ability to impart pure feeling and emotion along with all of the verve, color and joie de vivre of Gypsy Jazz. It’s shame he left this world so soon after because it was obvious he still had plenty to say…and play!