Even if you don’t want to see Biréli Lagrène playing, though I can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t, this DVD gives you a good ninety minutes of amazing music. The past twelve months have sent a considerable volume of guitar jazz my way, and if the ancient masters can’t really be cited in comparisons with Lagrène, well, I can hardly think of anybody better among the rest.
Here he is, stopping off in Paris in the course of a world tour, with a documentary film that is interesting enough, but mainly a quartet concert in a tradition musically as well as publicly established by Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt was an amazing jazz guitarist in 1935, and by 1940 he had worked and recorded with American jazzmen as great as there ever were—and quite possibly he was the greatest guitarist any of them had thus far worked with. After the rise of Nazism had sent them back across the Atlantic, and his non-Gypsy partner Stephane Grappelli went into exile in England and recorded with George Shearing in his band, Reinhardt remained in France and at risk. As a Gypsy he was hardly any more acceptable to the Nazis than Benny Goodman or Charlie Christian, but mercifully he wasn’t rounded up. The young Charlie Byrd, like Dave Brubeck a GI, hurried to find him when the US Army reached Paris before the end of the war. Byrd later met up with him in the USA when Duke Ellington brought Reinhardt over during the postwar years, and not only was Reinhardt recording with the Ellington band (he’d already recorded with Ellington sidemen during the band’s pre-war tour of Europe), Reinhardt had taken up electric guitar and with benefit of his ethnic background in complex rhythm and harmony he was stylistically no less modern by early 1950s standards than he’d been in the later 1930s. If he hadn’t died at only 46, his obvious profile would surely have been more complex.
Lagrène turned up as a very young guitarist doing brilliantly what Reinhardt had been famous for doing, and what tends these days to be referred to as Gypsy Jazz. There was some dark talk when he went on to play other things, contributing to musical currents that had arisen decades after Reinhardt’s death. If he ever got sick of being stereotyped, he was more than merely curious about the other music to which he contributed. If there ever were fears that he had been lost to music that’s generally uncongenial to those people bowled over by Lagrène acting as by Reinhardt, these fears need no longer exist. But he hasn’t made any sort of recanting return, either. At the end of the concert on DVD here, he even straps on a bass guitar and does an encore along the lines of his sometime partner Jaco Pastorius, a musician who also had strong ties to the music within which he had grown up. The recent reinstatement of the big band Pastorius established later in the course of a finally very tragic career might suggest that its music has become dated where earlier Reinhardt really hasn’t.
Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” was a tremendous choice early in the set, really placing the music where the bebop innovations are at one with the Reinhardt complexities, and Lagrène’s huge technical accomplishment is the means for thrilling invention. The man has wonderful musical ideas.
His quartet here includes Hono Winterstein, of a Gypsy musical family not beneath comparison with the Reinhardts, as the rhythmic engine, with Diego Imbert omnicompetent on bass. The saxophonist alternating between soprano and tenor is Franck Wolff, but nobody should assume his playing is on lines Reinhardt is liable to have heard before his death in 1954. He plays in a considerable extension of bebop, just as indeed Lagrène has demonstrated he can, as well—and demonstrates he can in integration with the group’s overall conception. When we get the chance to hear Winterstein solo, it’s interestingly on another bebop classic, Denzil Best’s “Move”, chugging some chorded choruses with the same excitement produced throughout—and enabled by Winterstein notably on the Reinhardt “Minor Swing”, where the rhythm guitarist really lets Lagrène go crazy. Lagrène moves nearer Wes Montgomery on “Victor”. Elsewhere, Lagrène gives himself an unaccompanied solo on electric guitar, and “Freedom Jazz Dance” is fun for everybody.
By the time the final encore—“Isn’t She Lovely”—has cut through the listener’s tendency to join in the applause, Franck Wolff has ranged through a considerable range of voice on his two horns, the dry-toned soprano in an echoey acoustic making it new with “Nuages”. Such tunes as “Mimosa”, “Danse Norvegienne”, and “Troublant, Bolero” can’t strike anybody as hackneyed choices, and they struck me as selections that really open up the possibilities this set brings to singular realisation. Exemplary is a good word for the programming of this set; unlikely to be excelled easily if at all seems a fair and modest comment for a set which even without the little documentary film or sight of the concert would be some sort of bargain double CD. I should also mention that Lagrène is also a terrific blues player (and probably a brilliant blues guitarist). But don’t spend too long looking at the contents page. An ill-advised decision was taken and the same blues passage accompanies the stills to a point of annoying monotony… though this small complaint does let me add that there’s nothing monotonous whatsoever anywhere else on this release.
Biréli Lagrène - Daphne [Live at the 2002 Montreux Jazz Festival]