Bireli Lagrene

Django — Bebop and Electric

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 (I wrote about here.) 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 very 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.

Soon after the end of World War II in 1945, Django began appearing with either an electric or amplified instrument although he still played acoustic occasionally… (On this dubbed movie clip of Nuits de Saint Germain des Prés [which is on this Hot Club of France Quintet CD] and on 3 sides of the …In Rome Sessions that he plays with Grappelli.) (You can see Django looking out the train window at the beginning of his segment that was part of the 1952 movie, La Route du Bonheur that also featured jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet). Django’s new electric sound allowed his playing to reach previously unknown heights and brought him more in line with the mainstream American jazz guitar artists of the time. While in the States he had jammed with Les Paul, Johnny Smith and Harry Volpe (I wrote about this here) and played American guitars as multiple photographs of the time show. By all accounts Django was thrilled with the possibilities that playing an electrified instrument afforded, however he still preferred his Selmer guitar fitted now with a Stimer pickup through a Stimer amp to all of those “tinpot” American guitars as he was known to refer to them.

But Django did not play the Selmer exclusively. This article and these pictures from the late 40s (1948) show Django performing with a Rio Guitar at the Nice Festival. (This link leads to a really great and informative Django site!!) (Incidentally, the Nice Festival, the first international jazz festival of any renown, debuted in 1948 with Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars as the headliner with Django and Stephane Grappelli among the supporting acts.) For the first time in Django’s 15 year career his guitar carried over the band; he could vary his attack from a bluesy whisper to screaming arpeggio runs and crunchy chords, and milk the instrument for all manner of delightful new tones. On this CD I believe some of the chord stabs and comping fills (that were a bit different from all of his masterful acoustic comping) take on almost a Les Paul/Chet Atkins/Barney Kessel-type rockabilly vibe in some cases and it sounds to me that Django is completely stoked with how it sounds. Likewise, his live performances at Clubs like the Saint Germaine during this period have been hailed as some of the most enjoyable and fully realized gigs (by both band and audience) of his career.

There are people, Stephane Grappelli for one, who believe that Django never got a handle on the electric guitar and that he should’ve stayed with his early choice of instrument. In some ways, this is a valid criticism, especially if you are a fan of the original Hot Club sound (all acoustic/guitars/bass/violin) or enjoy the material from the prewar period. There is a certain charm about that approach to jazz that persists to this day, however, a lot of Django’s later material was obviously inspired by his instrument switch. The change may have been what drove him to play and compose again and his change in style definitely attracted the younger set to his gigs. As I have written Django’s March, 1953 electric take of Night and Day (which along with his final take of Nuages [from the same session] which aren’t on this CD but SHOULD be), is the cut that inspired me to learn how to play jazz. On this track he simultaneously anticipates Miles Davis Cool and West Coast Jazz and digs for a distorted solo that is chock-full of spiraling, quick-picked guitar obbligatos and partial blues/diminished chords that are completely his own invention. A totally fun and outrageous melodic interpretation of a song he obviously enjoyed playing. I have no doubt from these later cuts that had Django lived into his 50s or 60s and continued working he would kept on evolving both his sound and approach to his instrument because above all else he had that JOY of playing the instrument that anyone who is reading this knows about. I don’t have to tell you…he was totally like that too. That almost childlike sense of wonder: “Wow…I can make it do this?”….”Cool” or “Bien” (I guess it would be)

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 these tunes 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 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 insistent, suave, uptempo 50s sound of Nuits De Saint Germaine De Pres. 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 Deccarphonie. 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. Deccarphonie also features superb vibes played by Martial Solal! But perhaps the best example of this was the ballad that he felt defined this whole period and who he was at this stage in his career, Anouman (A new man). He gives the very colorful and almost wistful melody (head) line to Hubert Fol and is content to solo only on the middle eight. But it is the chords fills, ghostly reverb presence of his guitar throughout the song that puts one in the mind of the story of how Django could lay by a river and listen to it for hours on end. Here at the end of his career he was no longer just showing how well a composer or improviser he was. 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 breath. 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!

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Another Book!

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Spring Cleaning has yielded a few more books from my Instruction Media collection! I last wrote about the other stuff I had in very exacting detail here about a month ago. I’ll have another one or two to show soon but here is The Guitar Style of Django Reinhardt and the Gypsies, by Ian Cruickshank. This is a compact, yet informative little tome from way back in the mid-80s and it was given to me a few years ago by my cousin. I think he originally picked it up soon after it was published. It reminds me of the Django Reinhardt: Know the Man, Play the Music book from the early 2000s in that the author tries to convey a sense of the people, community and history behind the music itself, while imparting some of the important guitar techniques of the style. I think both books succeed fabulously in this regard! (I’ve linked to Djangobooks where you can get them for a very reasonable price. I just ordered some Argentine Strings and will be reordering soon and, as always, you can count on prompt service!)

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The photographs in the book are fascinating and almost all of them were taken by the author (except for those pics of Django), probably at the annual Samois Festival.  You can feel the history just jumping off the pages with all of the players who were on the scene back in the day. Manouche/Sinti players always have a certain savoir faire about them. That’s true of all guitar players, but these guys definitely have their own artistic/cultural vibe. There are a lot of beat-up guitars and whatever amps they could dig up so most of the players supported themselves as musicians and worked a lot (whenever they could). There are pics of Django contemporary Maurice Ferret, Django’s brother, Joesph Reinhardt, a youngish Fapy Lafertin, Babik Reinhardt (Django’s son), young Boulou and Elios Ferré, Raphael and Louis Fays, Ninin, Modin, and many more. Of course the first part of the book is the story of Django — the guy who started it all!

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The author has been a player of some renown in the UK for a number of years. He obviously has a lot of love for the style and has been there for a lot of great shows over the years. The instructional material is a good primer for getting started on Manouche guitar. While it isn’t as detailed and exhaustive as later publications, Cruickshank covers all of the basics to get one up and jamming on a couple choruses of Minor Swing or Djangology. The hardest part is figuring out how to read the of the diagrams, which are a bit confusing.

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I recommend this book if only for the history lesson and as a snapshot of the mid-80s. Certainly the quality of instructional material has taken major leaps forward in the past 30 years and so much more is known about the inner workings of the style and community compared to 1985. Younger people would probably view some of the material as quaint or dated today, but it does hit all of the right notes as far as bullet points of the style, so I have to give it a thumbs up!

Bireli Lagrene is Really Great!

This video was my introduction to the guitar monster known as Bireli Lagrene and from here I picked up his 2004 Jazz at Vienne Concert where he does a whole mess of great playing and has help from some of the best talent around today. This concert is really amazing and I know that word is thrown around a lot, but if you haven’t been exposed to this style or the people who play it, you will find this to be a real eye-opener. It’s almost too much to watch all at once as it goes for almost 3 hours and then there’s bonus footage. It is a testament, not only to how great the European gypsy jazz players are, but how super-duper comfortable Bireli is in any playing situation.

Not only are these guys so good musically, but they are also really fun to watch (like all of the faces Bireli is making in the video above). I went to Jazz at Lincoln Center a few years ago with a couple of friends to catch Tchavalo, Dorado, and Samson Schmitt along with amazing violinist Florin Niculescu. Their complete disregard for the Broadway showbiz rules was refreshing. Jazz at Lincoln Center can be a little, er, stuffy. But we had seats front row center and caught all of the mirth the guys were having onstage. Dorado and Florin spent the whole second half of the program sharing some joke that brought laughter from the first few rows, us included. To have a sense of humor and also have chops that put most people to shame are two of the best human qualities as far as I’m concerned.

Here is a video from the Jazz at Vienne concert with Tchavalo, Dorado and Stochelo Rosenberg doing the Django classic J’attendrai. Tchavalo played this at Lincoln Center and as soon as he started it — I got a similar feeling when I saw Buddy Guy, Johnny Cash, Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray or Jimmie Vaughan — you KNOW you are watching the real deal. He was wearing a white suit and played like a man possessed. Dorado Schmitt is also remarkable and he played guitar, violin and even crooned a sweet ballad for us. To watch Tchavalo, Dorado and Florin  trade chorus after chorus with each other was just fantastic. A woman sitting in the next seat said “I can’t believe how good they are!” and I had to agree with her even though I knew we were going to see good show.

I encourage anyone the least bit interested to get the Jazz at Vienne DVD, you won’t be disappointed. Any guitar players interested in this style should watch the top video repeatedly and pay attention to Bireli’s right hand. THAT is what people call Gypsy Picking and nobody does it better than he. He also uses standard alternate picking when the mood strikes him, but plays the Gypsy Picking most of the time when he is doing this kind of material. The DVD has him onstage for a many segments — with his Gipsy Project, in duos, trios or group jams like the following. Bireli is a guy who can pretty much do anything.

Here is another video from the Vienne concert with Bireli, Stochelo Rosenberg, Tchavalo and Dorado doing the jazz and GJ standard Them There Eyes. This is these guys doing what they have been doing since they were kids — having a gypsy jazz  jam — only here they are in front of thousands of people.