Django Reinhardt

Aww…Noice!

DC Music School‘s latest offering features the incomparable Rocky Gresset and boy he sure makes it look easy, eh shredders? This is another “In the Style of…” edumacational device that the school is famous for and seeing as how I bought a few over the years I can say with certainty that it will be well worth the money. All of the players who have been featured are top-tier talent and the lessons are produced with the student in mind. One of the most impressive features I’ve learned about the Gypsy Jazz community is the quality of education! The best players will be the best teachers…duh!

While maybe not as well-known as some other Gypsy Jazzers, Rocky can more than hold his own with anyone, as the above awesome L-5 workout with the amazing Adrien Moignard proves. This is next-generation jazz and it’s pretty inspiring because it incorporates all the best of so many years of influences and innovations. While some of their playing is completely original, some also definitely owes a whole lot to the legacy of “The Boss”: Bireli Lagrene. He has been a consistent bar-raiser throughout his career and many younger players hold him as a mentor. But the freedom, musicality, and attitude originates a long time ago with people like Django Reinhardt, Johnny Smith and Barney Kessel. My go-to playlist lately has a whole lot of the electric bebop of these three guys from the 50s-60s period and it is a constant musical companion and wonder to behold!

All That Jazz

I got a message this week that said, “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, but that back-order of discs you’re expecting? Ain’t gonna happen. Remember… to order from us again…then you’ll begin to make it…better…” The discs in question were from the order that included the Howlin’ Wolf and Davey Graham CDs I’ve already reviewed…and yes being the guy I am, I did make it better, but not at the same online retailer. We haven’t finished with the replacement for the broken Wolf discs yet…so it’s best to proceed cautiously. But there was a bunch of music listening done this week so here are a few down-and-dirty reviews.

Moonlight in Vermont ***** This album was probably the high point of Johnny Smith’s career and is viewed as one of the most influential guitar classics of the period by many, including prominent guitarists such as Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, and Jimmy Bruno. Charlie Parker was also rumored to be a huge fan. The album is still a great disc to listen to because of its high level of musicality and the emotional romance that music of this period contained. The material on the album was actually a compilation drawn from 2 10-inch discs that Johnny had recorded while at NBC during the early 1950s (It was the song, Moonlight in Vermont, not the album, that was jazz magazine’s Downbeat #2 song of the year (in 1952). The album Moonlight… was released in 1956 and Smith picked his band from a group of fellers he met while was on staff at NBC. This group included the incomparable saxophone superstar Stan Getz, who is the perfect foil for Smith on this album as the two of them drive each other to thrilling and precipitous heights on several cuts. It’s easy to imagine that in lesser hands what is attempted would fall apart spectacularly, but they both had a level of mastery that enabled them to play cleanly, clearly, and brilliantly no matter the tempo or difficulty of the musical passages; a reason many of the performances on the disc are flat-out breathtaking, even by today’s standards.

Many reviews of Moonlight in Vermont allude to Smith’s chord melody style having the quality of a piano and his single line playing recalling the great saxophone lines of someone like Lester Young, and this is true. He also had a pure, very crystalline tone delivered either on an Epiphone or Guild archtop and there is at times a very distinct Western Swing vibe and a nod or three to the great Chet Atkins. Throughout the album there is a very Lush Musicality, that is well supported by the great rhythm section and piano players that appear on the disc. Moonlight in Vermont includes the original composition Jaguar with Smith and Getz playing the dual lead head and middle passages at breakneck tempo. Then there is the Caravan-esque Tabu with its bebop harmonies and dark guitar tone…also a dual lead by Smith and Getz. Smith’s picking is clean and forceful and he has said he imagined that he would have to execute lines in the same smooth fashion as a violin player (going from a bottom note all the way to the top in one crescendo movement). The breakdown middle during the solo choruses of Tabu illustrates this very well with both players blowing out a flurry of notes. The best ballads: Tenderly, Stars Fell on Alabama, I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance, and the title cut all feature Johnny’s beautiful chord melody (tight-closed voice) playing that he pulls off with the harmonic and melodic sense of a classical/jazz pianist. At other times, the sound of Johnny’s guitar almost approaches that of a pedal steel and that tone adds an extra level of sweetness, ambiance, and emotionalism to the tunes and juxtaposes very nicely with Getz’s very throaty, resonant sax solos. Sometimes it also sounds like Hawaiian slack key slide guitar as on the bouncy Vilia and I’ll Be Around. Then there are the tunes that are completely early 50s bop: Cherokee, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and Cavu. All in all it’s a perfectly balanced listening experience and though it serves as such, it is much more than just a very inspired guitar study. Trust me when I say that if you throw it on the next time you want to set a romantic mood, you won’t be sorry!

Soft Guitars***1/2 The Al Caiola (w/Don Arnone) Soft Guitars disc is another lush and very swanky jazz disc, released in 1961. Both Caiola and Arnone were well-regarded studio musicians in New York in the 1950s, so obviously this is top-level, well-arranged music for the swank set of that time. This is very typical of the Cool Jazz/Space Age pop/Bachelor-Pad style of music of the time; lots of playful sounds, swinging guitars, bongos, vibes, bells, whistles, sound effects, and lots of album covers with hot babes. This album was originally part of a two-LP set called Great Pickin’ and Soft Guitars and then was a 2 LP on 1 CD set and somewhere along the line the set was split. It is a marvelous snapshot or earshot, if you will, of a time in music that is long gone, yet recalls the exuberance, optimism, and class of the pre-rock era. People like me, who came of age during the 60s and 70s still heard this type of music and this type of musician all of the time on television and in movies. It didn’t really go away permanently until the 80s.

There is a well-arranged duet style that permeates the record and given that both of these guys were first call session guitarists, I’m sure they came to this kind of arranging naturally. There isn’t a whole lot of wild improvisation or flashy stuff; they keep it to some great instrumental jazz/popular music of the time, played exceptionally well. They cover Stella by Starlight, Try a Little Tenderness, The Sound of Music and More Than You Know. Leading off the album is their take on They Can’t Take That Away From Me, a song that was later associated with jazz guitar titans Ted Greene and Martin Taylor. Since this album was recorded way back in 1961, I would say Al and Don got there first! In addition to other jumpin’, jivin’ tunes like S’ Wonderful and S’Nice they do a great take on Imagination, the old jazz warhorse I Can’t Get Started, and Clair de Lune as Debussy might’ve imagined it. I wrote about Debussy and the complicated history of Clair de Lune here and was very surprised to find it on an album like this. Because both guitarists are obviously playing electric (archtop) guitars their version has a much different, trebly, ringing quality that one doesn’t hear when the piece is performed classically as it usually is. But I enjoy the very ethereal and dreamy feel that is augmented with beautiful harp accompaniment from Gloria Agostini. Though this isn’t the genre-defining album that Moonlight in Vermont was and is, it is still a great listening experience.

There were two other discs that I previewed, but ultimately passed on…and they were both Django Reinhardt CDs if you can believe that! The first disc was Django and His American Friends, a 3 disc set that is mostly Django backing up the likes of early jazz superstars like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter as well as lesser-knowns like Rex Stewart and Dickie Wells. There are some Freddie Taylor vocal cuts (After You’ve Gone, Georgia, Ilse Muggin’) too, but they (as well as some of the Hawkins material) can be found elsewhere and I already have. While the disc gets great reviews, most of this stuff is the big-band era kind of jazz that doesn’t really feature guitars or Django. Of course he was a GREAT rhythm player and there is something to be said for the historical value, but I do have some of this stuff on other comps and truth be told, it’s not really my go-to Django stuff. I prefer him playing his compositions.

Another Django disc I previewed and passed on was Django in Brussels, which is not the same as this disc that I have and have already reviewed and is very good. Culled from 1942 sessions, this new disc (new to me not NEW) sounds like it was recorded off of someone’s copy of a scratchy record in the back of a caravan somewhere. The sessions themselves are the stuff of legend: recorded beneath Stalag 13 while Colonel Klink and the rest of the oblivious Nazis slept, Django and his band recorded a bunch of rare and unheard tunes…at least for those who are familiar with his catalog. Of course, this is the major selling point of what I found to be a ho-hum collection. Also…I can’t get past the fidelity. That’s probably all that survives of this session at this point, but I didn’t think the songs themselves were so great that I could ignore the sound quality. Others make think differently about that equation and that is the beauty of musical opinions just BEWARE! If you are thinking about buying a Django in Brussels CD and it doesn’t look like this, better preview some of the audio first is all I’m saying!

Tidbits

So what did you guys have for lunch? This is what I had. It was pretty good. Never let it be said that living in NYC doesn’t have it’s perks. Of course, there are downsides, but, hey…why dwell on the negative? We all only get one go-round on this crazy merry-go-round called existence! (Or do we?) I’m not so sure about anything anymore. Ya know how…when you’re a kid and you have all of these questions and you completely annoy your parents and they give you answers that aren’t always satisfactory, but you think, “when I’m that age I’ll know everything,” and, of course, it doesn’t work out like that?

So I saw an old friend at this week. He was here and it was nice to visit, because it’s always nice to see old friends. We met and hung out at Hotel Indigo on Ludlow. It’s got some interesting history…I’m not gonna go into it here…but it’s one of those stories. The place is interesting and very popular. Totally the number 1 spot for PartyGirl Inc. Speaking of punk rock…there’s a picture of Johnny Ramone at CBGBs on the ceiling. As we sat in this lounge/bar (that was really dope by 2018 standards) and shot the proverbial poop, I wondered what fraction of 1% of the people who hustle and bustle through the place actually know or care who JR is? I guess it doesn’t matter at this point. He’s kind of like a wallpaper pattern and maybe wherever he is, he’s okay with that. By all accounts he seemed to have a taciturn sense of humor. If I was dead and a wallpaper pattern that would be like immortality. Probably the Ramones don’t really sell that many albums anymore.

Speaking of albums…I continue to enjoy the Howlin’ Wolf comp that I reviewed last week. One element of the review that I regretted missing is that Wolf, for all of his gnarliness and gravelly voiced danger, actually sang quite a few tender songs about love, good women and great relationships. So it’s not all Saturday night neon somebody better call the ambulance music…although there is plenty of that too. As I related the CD arrived broken in a few places, but the company has issued a return! If that all works out well, I will totally hype the place because their customer service is very responsive. If you remember I guessed (and correctly I think) that it would be very similar to dealing with Zappos. Plus, like Zappos, they have all of these sales that they are constantly hyping and everything is priced to move! I just might have to do more shopping!

Speaking of beating a horse with an old rug or something…there are TWO, yes, count ’em, TWO movies out or coming out on Lynryd Skynyrd. Considering Ronnie Van Zant has been dead for 41 years now, that is pretty remarkable. The first is a SHOWTIME presentation that is OFFICIAL in that it has the band’s (and I use that term loosely since most of “the band” is no longer with us) seal of approval. The other movie, Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash, has been cleared by a court in New York for release. It was held up by Gary Rossington and various estates because they did not approve of its central theme, which seems to be Artimus Pyle’s version of the plane crash. The movie has a whopping $1.5 million budget and is supposedly already shot. To put that in perspective, Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic had a budget of $28 million. So this will probably be released straight to WalMart or something. Back in the day I wrote this post on Skynyrd; it’s one of my most popular all-time by views. I don’t know that either of these movies is really necessary and they might even be a tad, I dunno, redundant at this point. Even though I will always remain a total fan of the original band, we all know how the story ends, there have been many presentations on the Skynyrd story, and I can’t imagine anyone needs to sit through the story of the plane crash. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of biopics anyhow, which is kind of what “Street Survivors” is.

Something that is just opening in New York that I WON’T be missing is the Velvet Underground Experience, which is a multi-floor, multimedia presentation that is gonna be open through the rest of the year. I’m totally going and soon! I’ll have a review and whatever pics they let me take. It will be lots of weirdos in even weirder sunglasses! AWESOME! I’m not the biggest VU fan…musically I think they made be just a tad overrated, maybe, but White Light/White Heat and The Black Album from 1969 are both fun discs and What Goes On (with great guitar solo by Reed/Sterling Morrison and great rhythm guitar by Lou Reed) is definitely one of the best songs of the 1960s. The first album and Loaded I played out a long time ago, but they certainly were revolutionary…so maybe the band isn’t overrated at all! I’m sure some of this exhibit will be interesting!

This is a very dramatic time of the year, especially in New York. It recalls something…in everybody. Like Billie Holliday’s version of the George Duke classic, Autumn in New York, which, and I quote from this page: “The bruised optimism of Vernon Duke’s much-covered 1934 jazz standard—which allows that a New York autumn is “often mingled with pain,” but insists that “it’s good to live it” – found its perfect expression in Billie Holiday’s yearning version with pianist Oscar Peterson. Duke’s moody music and poetic lyrics (“Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel”) are an invitation to fall in love.”

I’m definitely mingling in pain, and I think probably I’m to old to fall in love…unless it’s with a new restaurant. Besides, I have somebody to love and a lot of people don’t, so I’m pretty lucky. She even buys me lunch. How great is that? This time of the year also reminds me of Django Reinhardt’s Anouman. The two songs sound very similar…They have the same nostalgic, melancholy flavor that is inherent in the approaching end of another year. There is celebration, but also sometimes a pause, a memory, a wistful yearning for someone, something lost; like the sunny high days that will be gone until next year. All of the sushi restaurants play this kind of music quietly in the background…it’s all part of a deliciously, classy, tasteful experience. Yes…it is good to live it again!

The Impressionists — Part 2

Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz

part 1 introduced the Impressionists and delved into the history and musical ideas of Claude Debussy, not only as he employed them in some of his most celebrated pieces, but also how these same ideas were picked up and used by other composers, most notably Django Reinhardt and others from the Gypsy Jazz genre of guitar music. In Part 2, I would like to briefly explore the music of four other composers from this era and why their music appeals to me.

Erik Satie was a very eccentric character who was a very good friend and influence on Debussy. Even though in Part 1 one of the film clips features Leonard Bernstein giving credit to Debussy for “inventing” the Whole Tone Scale, it is also said that Satie “wrote music in the whole-tone scale before Debussy ever thought of doing so”. I was introduced to Satie a very long time ago courtesy of the very famous 2nd album, by Blood, Sweat & Tears, released in 1968. The album included Variations on a Theme By Erik Satie, which was based on Satie’s First and Second Gymnopédies; very melancholy piano pieces that used “mild dissonances against the harmonic”. However, the intro, with it’s very deliberate two major seventh chords was MADE for guitar arrangement and this is why it has always been a memorable piece for me. The melody is innocently lilting, but also seems very sad and resigned at the same time. It is very fun to do a full on guitar version of this and it is aptly demonstrated here and here. Another quality of this piece and Satie in general is there is a very soothing quality to his dreamy music. Satie was admired by guitarist/composer Frank Zappa and heavily influenced The New School of composers that included John Cage. Here’s a list of how different he was as a person…(he only ate white food). Interestingly enough, Satie himself was a humorist and didn’t take his music or music in general very seriously so it’s possible he heard all that he composed much differently than I do. There’s a chance he was being ironic! My god…could it be? The World’s First Hipster? Don’t laugh…I’m telling you, these men were influential.

Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz, two Spanish composers who were likewise contemporaries of Debussy, but also would probably not be considered Impressionists. Granados’ 12 Danzas (#11 is played by Evangelos and Liza above) were very popular in his time and he also wrote seven operas. Before he died in 1916 his most famous works, The Goyescas were influenced by works from Francisco de Goya. Albéniz was also a pianist and he composed the famous Iberia, a collection of virtuoso piano pieces. Both of these men were deemed Nationalist because their music was heavily influenced by, and meant to sound like Spain. This is why their music translates so well to guitar and sounds even more authentic on the guitar in some cases (at least to my ears) than it does on piano. Enrique Granados especially, produced very strident, masculine music, full passion, melody and virtuosity. I was exposed to both thanks to Julian Bream and John Williams adaptations on the Together and Together Again discs and they have covered these pieces on the YouTube. It’s possible that, at least according to Bream and Williams, Granados and Albéniz were Impressionists because Bream is quoted as saying:

“It is, however, his earlier pieces and in particular the Suite Española Opus 47 which initially brought Albéniz such fame and success in his lifetime. This Suite was published 1886. It consists of four highly impressionistic tone poems. The evocation of Granada -surely one of his most Idyllic pieces, the exhilarating portrait of Sevilla and the gay and bustling Saeta Cadiz.” (J. Bream 1982)

Sevilla is also the name of an absolutely bangin’ composition by The Rosenberg Trio and, of course, they are masters at playing exotic guitar-driven music. This performance is from the North Sea Jazz Festival and they are joined by outstanding percussionist Eddie Conard. Stochelo’s influences run far and wide, so I would not be surprised if he was/is influenced by Granados, Albéniz, Bream, Williams or any combination of the 4! Stochelo has also performed a few “tone-poems” of his own over the years and was probably inspired to do this through the music of Impressionist, classical, and flamenco guitar players as well as his main influence, Django Reinhardt. Here he is playing Just Relax; my first exposure to his composing genius and amazing guitar abilities. There are many Impressionist ideas used in this piece and the middle has a bit of Satie with the virtuoso underpinnings of Reinhardt.

The last composer of the group, Maurice Ravel, though younger than Debussy by 12 years, was often associated with him and Impressionism. Unfortunately, by the early 1900s factions would form around the two composers that would exacerbate the tension and sometime rivalry that existed between the two men, so their friendship, that had never been close to begin with, fractured. Ravel was not nearly the musical revolutionary that Debussy was, and was:

“…content to work within the established formal and harmonic conventions of his day, still firmly rooted in tonality—i.e., the organization of music around focal tones. Yet, so very personal and individual was his adaptation and manipulation of the traditional musical idiom that it would be true to say he forged for himself a language of his own that bears the stamp of his personality as unmistakably as any work of Bach or Chopin. While his melodies are almost always modal (i.e., based not on the conventional Western diatonic scale but on the old Greek Phrygian and Dorian modes), his harmonies derive their often somewhat acid flavour from his fondness for “added” notes and unresolved appoggiaturas, or notes extraneous to the chord that are allowed to remain harmonically unresolved. “

Ravel was a painstaking composer therefore his output was much less than many of his contemporaries and some works like Gaspard de la nuit, a suite of piano pieces, were very technically challenging pieces to play. Ravel was the only composer out of this group who lived late enough into the 20th century to experience, recognize and participate in recording music. I used to have this biography on the composer and two of the topics that are of special interest to modern guitar players is (as with Debussy) the use of the Pentatonic Scale and (for especially Ravel) the use of Modes (as related above). The book went into some detail and I actually applied it to my own playing when I started to use Modes. (Maybe this isn’t correct, but Satie always sounds very Lydian to me). Another view that pretty much restates what was originally outlined in my post on Debussy, courtesy of this website:

“After hearing the simple but powerful spells cast by the pentatonic scale (at theL’Esposition Universelle in Paris in 1889), Debussy and Ravel tried using them to “paint” gentle scenes of water, clouds, and fog, thus ridding themselves of the old fashioned rules and structures…

“The improvised quality of these Impressionist pieces must have seemed like a pretty radical idea back them because most European ears had been accustomed to hearing music as a series of predictable events, much like what you experience today in a movie or television show. By 1900, the French Impressionist composers had gotten rid of distinct musical narratives and were using the newly “discovered” pentatonic scales to portray hazy and ill-defined without much traditional melody or even a sense of beat. They were creating trance pieces that relied on the timbres (sound color) of various instruments to canvey mood rather than melodies. Typical titles were, Nuages (Clouds) by Debussy and Jeux d’Eau (The Play of Water) by Ravel.”

– From The Wisdom of the Hand: A Guide to the Jazz Pentatonic Scales by Marius Nordal, (Sher Music, 2015)”

Ravel’s most famous composition was Bolero, which was originally supposed to be an orchestration of Albeniz’s Iberia (mentioned above). Ravel instead decided to compose something completely original and hit upon the idea of having a single theme and a relentless rhythmic build-up for the entire 16-minute piece. Scandal and Success ensued! Success because it was his most popular and maybe influential work; scandal because it was his least favorite because he didn’t consider the work up to his usual standard.

Django Reinhardt was probably the first guitarist and certainly the most well-known musician of his time to begin applying the styles of modern classical music and Impressionism to his own very (non) classical music style. While Django was certainly a fan of many types of music and artists ranging from Bach to Louis Armstrong, he was quoted early in his career:

“Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn’t have.”

In 1937 Django recorded his own Bolero based on Ravel’s Bolero from 1928. Django’s recording did not feature his usual “Hot Club” partners, including Stephane Grappelli. It was performed (and arranged) by Django with three trumpets, two trombones, a flute and three violins. His performance simultaneously calls to mind Ravel’s piece and anticipates a future Jeff Beck. The driving rhythmic build-up and the sad melody seem to echo Ravel but then there are sudden stops with bursts of Phrygian lines played by violins and then Django’s guitar. Django’s Bolero was received with great acclaim and it was here that he became much more than just a jazz player. This is the point those who want to argue Charlie Christian vs. Django Reinhardt always miss. Charlie for all his talent never reached this level of composition or recognition for his ability to do so. Not only was this the first step in Django’s emerging career as a serious composer, but it was also probably his first step forward influencing the future guitarists of the 60s and beyond.

The music of the 1960s was Rock coming into it’s own as an accepted artistic movement, sort of akin to what happened with jazz music in the 1930s and what happened as Modern/Impressionist composers were accepted in the late 19th/early 20th century. By 1965-66 The Beatles had allowed Baroque and Impressionist overtones to become a part of their music with songs like Michelle, Yesterday, Girl, and For No One. The influence of Eastern music, especially the Indian raga music of Ravi Shankar and others expanded the sounds of Psychedelia as did the advances in technology that allowed for distortion, wah-wah pedals and other tone benders to be employed to reshape the sound…And then there was the direct nod from guitarist Jeff Beck, who continued the tradition begun by Ravel and carried on by Reinhardt, by recording his own…Beck’s Bolero in 1966. But was it Beck? Was it Jimmy Page? Was it the first Led Zeppelin song? The controversy will continue forever:

“In a 1977 interview with Guitar Player magazine, Jimmy Page said: “On the ‘Beck’s Bolero’ thing I was working with that, the track was done, and then the producer just disappeared. He was never seen again; he simply didn’t come back. Napier-Bell, he just sort of left me and Jeff to it. Jeff was playing and I was in the box (recording booth). And even though he says he wrote it, I wrote it. I’m playing the electric 12-string on it. Beck’s doing the slide bits, and I’m basically playing around the chords. The idea was built around (classical composer) Maurice Ravel’s ‘Bolero.’ It’s got a lot of drama to it; it came off right. It was a good lineup too, with Keith Moon, and everything.”

Beck’s Bolero is a classic composition from the 60s and Beck still plays it all of the time. Jimmy Page performed his own ‘bolero’ on Led Zeppelin’s first album, with the pastiché song, How Many More Times. This song is also one of three tunes from the first album to feature Page’s violin-bowed guitar. Here is an exhaustive exploration on every possible bit and piece contained within the song (including the bolero) and there are many. How many people have rocked out to this tune over the years never knowing it can be traced back to a mild-manner French composer from the early 1900s? (The band launches into the ‘bolero’ at about the 7:00 minute mark in this performance at Royal Albert Hall in 1970)

So this snapshot of almost 100 years of music is pretty interesting and it illustrates how Impressionist composers and their peers from the late 1800s and early 1900s served two vital functions. First, they “bridged” the earlier (romantic) eras of Classical music with the what would become Modern Classical music. They lived and composed during a very transitional time, when the very atmosphere was pregnant with possibility. This is certainly audible in all of their musical creations, which feature unpredictable movement, spontaneous progressions, outrageous dissonance and, at times, uncertain harmony. Likewise, the jazz greats of the 30s and 40s forged a musical bond between the classical and the popular and brought their art from the salons to the nightclubs. This was also a time of great change and upheaval; musical, as well as social and political. The 1960s were also a time of great upheaval, but also an era of great expansion and advancement in music and art. The musicians and technicians of that decade forged new paths and developed new ways of creating and playing music that served as a model for decades. Even today, though hard to find sometimes, there are still musicians rewriting the rules of yesterday and breaking new barriers to create new sounds. More than 100 years later, Impressionism still serves as an example and an inspiration to change, dynamism and inventiveness.

The Impressionists — Part 1

Claude Debussy, Rockstar

Back in the early 1980s I remember reading a Van Halen interview and at one point he related how much he liked Claude Debussy. (If you follow the link you can read the whole interview [from 1980] for yourself. That wasn’t my first exposure to the name Claude Debussy as I had taken some music courses in college, but it was interesting that EVH was a fan and it’s probably the first time the name “Debussy” was mentioned in a rock guitar interview. It’s likely that Edward’s early piano studies were responsible for the exposure to classical music and it didn’t hurt that his father was a lifelong jazz musician who, because of his European (Dutch) background, probably knew all about Debussy and other Impressionist composers. Debussy casts a long shadow over 20th Century music and while it is beyond the scope of this blog and this blogger to explore all of the aspects of Debussy’s music and Impressionism, especially in the classical music realm, I am capable of drawing attention to some of the salient musical ideas he expressed and some of the musicians he and his contemporaries inspired.

You can get a full Debussy bio from several sources if you are interested: here, here, here, and here. What is striking about Debussy is that unlike many composers/French composers from this period, he is a man who came from nowhere; he was not from musical family and the source of his talent and influences has always been somewhat mysterious. He stated many times that his overriding guide for composing and playing was always, first and foremost, his own pleasure and enjoyment; musical rules, critics and audiences alike were of no consequence. Debussy was part of a group of somewhat controversial composers who came of age and success in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other notables in this group known as Impressionists included: Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie and Isaac Albéniz. Departing from established norms in the classical musical field was, of course, not without problems. European audiences of the day were somewhat less than enamored with any departure from classical and romantic musical traditions. Debussy has often been called a musical revolutionary because of his desire to overthrow the established “rules” of composition (and perhaps it is this desire that Van Halen channeled the most?). Debussy (and Ravel to a certain extent) did not like the fact that [their] brand of composition brought comparison to the art movement of Impressionism: the harmonic nature of their compositions and the dreamy qualities of their music recalled the Impressionists’ art: “… scenes suffused with reflected light in which the emphasis is on the overall impression rather than outline or clarity of detail.” They considered themselves “modernists” and believed they were composing for a new generation and a new century. This is certainly voiced by Debussy in one of his most famous quotes: “The century of airplanes has a right to its own music.”

The video above features Leonard Bernstein’s analysis of one of Debussy’s most famous compositions, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), his first real musical “success”. Bernstein, one of history’s greatest musical minds, explores the background on the modern period I alluded to in the previous paragraph and then, during an analysis of the composition, explains Impressionism and how Debussy’s ideas helped shape music for the 20th century. He discusses the vagueness and dreamy qualities implied by uncertain tonal centers and Debussy’s use of the Augmented Fourth or the Tritone Interval (notes that span from G nat to C# and chords that move from Emaj to Bb7). As Bernstein explains, though it is unclear at the outset, Debussy’s Faun Poem is in the key of Emaj and throughout refers to, reverts to, or flirts with, either Emaj or one of it’s relative tonics and these tonal references serve as “landmarks” that illustrate a point of repose or a change in movement. As the 1st part of the video segues into part 2 (it should do so automatically) it is clear that Debussy also makes use of conventional I-V cadences (Emaj to Bmaj) which restore a sense of tradition and diatonic order, but no sooner than he does, he introduces a Whole Tone Scale! (more ambiguity). Bernstein gives Debussy credit for inventing the Whole Tone Scale, explains the relation of this scale to the Tritone, and notes that this is the first Atonal Scale to appear in music history (which should help illustrate why this was all very controversial to 19th century ears). Not included in the videos, but important nonetheless is that Debussy also employed: Bi-tonality, Pentatonic Scales, Random Modulations, free chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, and new ideas for instrument combinations. He also employed what was termed, at the time, A Strong Orientalism, which translates to “he was open to using sounds and ideas from Eastern music in his compositions.” [A familiar tale is how enchanted he was with the performance of a troupe of Gamelan performers from Java at the 1889 and 1900 Paris Expositions.]

All of this musical theory stuff is tame by today’s standards and is certainly familiar to anyone who is well-versed in various aspects of theory across different genres of music (classical, jazz, fusion, etc), but many of these ideas were really groundbreaking for Debussy’s day. People walked out of the performances because these composers were creating music that sounded atonal and dissonant to 19th century ears steeped in classical and romantic traditions. Modern composers and players of all stripes have made use of these techniques since the beginning of the last century (pretty much every blues/rock guitar player starts with the Pentatonic scale). While Debussy’s influence obviously transcends many musical boundaries, his music, played as is, holds up to this day. Piano was his instrument of choice for composing and/or performing, and further below we will make use of piano videos to explore a famous Debussy song. However, it is very easy to adapt his pieces for the guitar. Long ago I reviewed this wonderful CD of Classical Guitar Masters Julian Bream and John Williams collaborations from the 1970s titled Together and Together Again, that has been repackaged (as a 2-disc set) at various times since. The disc(s) contains three Debussy compositions: Reverie, Golliwog’s Cakewalk and the well-known Claire De Lune. It also contains a few fellow Impressionist Isaac Albéniz compositions as well as cuts from contemporaries Enrique Granados and Gabriel Fauré. Obviously, Bream and Williams were big fans of this period and saw a lot of value in adapting piano pieces to 2 guitars. (Some of these pieces even sound as if they were composed specifically for the guitar). Below they play Reverie; haunting and ethereal — one of Debussy’s early compositions and one that I think illustrates his dreamy musical qualities very well.

Guitar Master Tommy Emmanuel is also is a Debussy fan and as he relates, “he’ll do anything to entertain people!” So here is his version of Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. If you think this doesn’t sound like classical musical, well imagine hearing it in 1911! This piece was part of the Children’s Corner Piano Suite which was written in honor of Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma (“Chou-Chou”). The rhythm and harmonic content are Debussy’s most obvious nod to American Ragtime. Debussy also injects “the love-death leitmotif of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde into the B part of the piece. Tommy does a very faithful rendition of this difficult piece of music (in Eb).

As the 20th century progressed the ideas and sounds of Debussy and his Modernity or Impressionism began to appear in popular and jazz music. Anyone who has any familiarity with jazz recognizes concepts like the tritone, chromatics, atonal scales and cadences that don’t involve familiar rules of harmony. Not only was this seen in compositions of the day, but it also appeared in the improvisations of notable jazz players, especially those with a classical background or an ear toward these composers. Someone I have written about extensively, Django Reinhardt, adopted many of Debussy’s (Impressionist) ideas for his own compositions and improvising. While Django was certainly a fan of many types of music and artists ranging from Bach to Louis Armstrong, he was quoted early in his career: “Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn’t have.” The influence of the Impressionism would emerge as early as 1937 when he recorded Bolero, which was heavily inspired by Maurice Ravel’s composition of the same name (this will be explored in Part 2).

In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II that left violinist Stephane Grappelli stranded in England, Django enlisted Hubert Rostaing on clarinet and composed one of his most famous numbers, Nuages; a guitar nod to Impressionism and a gift to the French people who were suffering under Nazi occupation. Stuffed full of Debussy-style Chromaticism, Whole Tone and Diminished scale runs, the song is classic Reinhardt. Some have speculated that because the Nazi regime was hostile to anything that smacked of American music or certainly jazz, Django shifted his composition style to one that was much more classically-influenced and this may be true. Or the addition of reeds to his ensemble inspired him because in addition to Nuages, he would compose or arrange Impressionist-influenced music with this new cast of musicians throughout the 1940s: Manoir de mes Rêves, Melodie au Crepescule, Danse Norvegienne, Cavalerie, Oiseaux Des Iles, Lentement Mademoiselle, Fleur D’Ennui and Crepuscule . All of these pieces have the sound and vibe of Debussy and the other classical composers that Django admired and some, like Lentement Mademoiselle and Crepuscle have direct clarinet intro nods that recall Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (above). He also would record a Debussy piece, Reverie, during the Rome Sessions of 1949-59. While not as literal as Bream and Williams’ take above, Django obviously takes a Debussy inspiration and makes it his own. He also would record a song by the name of Clair de Lune in 1947, although this piece has nothing in common with the Debussy’s composition, except it’s name. The song was actually composed by Joseph Kosma, (writer of many a splendid thing, including Les feuilles mortes, more commonly known as the standard, Autumn Leaves, for an aborted movie that would’ve been named La Fleur de l’âge, had it been completed. Supposedly this is just one of the 4 songs Django and Company would’ve performed and it’s a shame it was not to be as Django plays some totally killin’ guitar on it. What is strange is that Django DID appear in a 1932 movie titled…you guess it Clair de Lune some two years before the original Hot Club of France was formed. This movie was shot (completely outdoors) in Cannes and features some very melodious guitar.

Clair de Lune was certainly one of Debussy’s most famous pieces, part of the Suite bergamasque and titled from an 1869 poem of the same name. (Interestingly enough, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, L’après-midi d’un faune). It is played very emotionally and dynamically above by the very talented Kathia Buniatishvili. It is also discussed and analyzed here and here if you are interested to learn more about this very famous composition. I’ve listened to many different versions of this piece, including a the one by Bream and Williams, which is a favorite and I have to say this piece is what I imagine 1895 sounded like…at least in certain circles.

This video analysis above of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, explained through the lens of jazz harmony is a must-watch, especially if you have any music geek in you at all. It is also an interesting primer for jazz/classical harmony. Anyone who has attempted to play Jazz or Gypsy Jazz will find many of these musical ideas familiar because they have become important staples of the style(s). In this lesson on YouTube (unfortunately it does not have subs) Romane (who I wrote about here) demonstrates the Whole Tone scale beginning at about the 9 minute mark. Diminshed/Octatonic scales and arpeggios are also often used in improvisations. Diminished chords are also used very frequently in the harmony of Gyspy Jazz tunes and songs from the Swing Era and these “movement” / “transition” chords and the ability to play over them is very important aspect of what gives the style it’s verve and exotic sound. See also discussions about this topic here and here and know that Debussy’s influence was definitely a factor, even if the chords or how they are thought of is not exactly the same as is true in classical music.

Stephane Wrembel is may be the most Impressionist-influenced composer/player happening today. He certainly has embraced all of what can be gleaned from Debussy, Django, Jimmy Page, and others to compose and perform music that sounds unlike any other. I’ve written about him before, here and here and his abilities as a composer and channel of these musical ideas first expressed back in the 19th century only continue to grow. In the above video he demonstrates his Impressionist ideas and how this shapes his music. Anyone who is a fan of Gypsy Jazz will find these concepts very familiar, but Stephane is definitely one of the riskiest composers in the genre. His music synthesizes all of the freedom found not only in Impressionism, but also the best music of the 20th century and the ideas that Debussy espoused about how emotion and freedom were more important to music that convention.

As I have done in the past, like this exploration on the song Waiting for the Sunrise, I find that the history, progression and connections of musical styles, ideas, players and composers fascinating. Debussy’s music stands on it’s own and it brings me great pleasure to listen to it and all that it inspired. What he created became so much more than just music; it became a way of making music, that inspired later musicians to create their own unique statements. The idea of freedom he aspired to and tried to bring to his compositions is a quality that every writer, player and improviser seeks to achieve because that is the highest plateau one can reach as an artist. I’m not sure what influence Debussy had on Edward Van Halen. The very different rock of Fair Warning? (that I reviewed here). The keyboard stuff that started appearing at that time? Sunday Afternoon in the Park? 1984? Girl Gone Bad? Someone should ask him, it would be interesting to find out!

In Part 2 I’ll look at some of the other Impressionist composers and how their ideas and their music helped shape the sounds of the 20th century and beyond!

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!