Biréli Lagrène Gipsy Project: Just the Way You Are

[23 January 2008]

By Stuart Henderson

PopMatters Features Editor

Like his hero and primary influence Django Reinhardt, Biréli Lagrène’s manouche guitar work is accomplished, confounding, and exhilarating. This record, the third in a series of mostly acoustic collaborations with his “Gipsy Project” sextet, finds Lagrène in good form, with fingers flying and ideas flowing. In fact, here is to be found some of the most technically impressive fretwork this reviewer has heard in some time. It’s firecracker stuff: up and down the board with dexterous ingenuity, his solos full of head-spinning shifts in direction, Lagrène makes the instrument his own. He is so calmly amazing at the thing that it’s easy to forget the rest of the musicians who surround him. Although their work (especially that of hornman Franck Wolf) is sturdy (if a bit reserved), this record is all about the electrifying frontman.

Raised in a traditional Roma community in the 1960s and early ‘70s, Lagrène first started playing the guitar at the age of four and (so goes the story) was being referred to as a child prodigy soon thereafter. Since then, he has racked up accolades from diverse sources. He even received an endorsement from John McLaughlin, which is sort of like having Michael Jordan admire your jump shot. He’s played everywhere, with a wide variety of musicians, and in a wide variety of styles (including a stretch in the early ‘80s working alongside Jaco Pastorius). But, here, in a mostly acoustic Parisian café format, he is at his most effective. Especially on the more traditional numbers (such as Reinhardt’s own “Féerie”, for example), Lagrène’s music is utterly timeless. If it hadn’t been so crisply recorded it might sound like it was produced 60 years ago.

But, the reality is that the record was recorded over three days at Studio Ferber in Paris last Spring. The band was well-rehearsed; each track is focused, and tightly constructed. But, with song selections ranging from the traditional (“Féerie”, “Lune de Miel”) to the surprising (a slightly unnecessary vocal rendition of “All of Me” and a cover of Elvis Presley’s schlocky “Love me Tender”), it seems that the Gipsy Project came to the studio with a range of ideas about how to move their sound forward. This is commendable, but a bit unfortunate. The standout cuts here are all excellent, but they can tend to sound out of sequence, as though we are listening to a few different records on shuffle. For, while their take on “After You’ve Gone” (Creamer/Layton) is stirring and classic, their version of “Guet-Apens” (Diego Imbert) is frantic and, in the spot it finds itself on an otherwise mostly traditional record, mood-shattering.

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