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Biréli Lagréne: Djangology / To Bi or Not to Bi

Two more sides of the guitar ace, for versatile listeners.

Biréli Lagréne

Djangology / To Bi or Not to Be

Subtitle: WDR Big Band -- Solo
Label: Dreyfus
US Release Date: 2007-02-27
UK Release Date: 2006-11-13

Lagréne would have made my list of the best recordings issued last year, if I'd had time to compile one: probably the live set with saxophone, rhythm guitar, and bass, rather than the also exceptional set with Hammond B3 giant and veteran French drummer.

Now we have the two discs, recorded live, presented as a set: one with the West Deutsche Rundfunk Big Band, from Köln, the city known in English by the French name Cologne. The other is a selection of solo performances selected from tapes of several concerts (possibly not from solo concerts?) . So it says, and so it sounds. There's a succession of numbers with, not exactly grandstanding, playful business conducive to rapport with the audience.

There's not much of that on "La Belle Vie", a lovely little ballad performance. "Madras Express" follows it with more of the funnier stuff, Bach and even some double bass impersonating. Boyng! If I was a guitarist I'd be terrified! What would Debash Bhattacharya make of the contraboyng or contrabass notes being used to slip into the Indian music his guitars -- but not the one here -- have been supplemented to make.

"Amparo" is another ballad, all "A Very Good Year" until the percussive blues playing begins, and from there -- ah, but with a fun and surprise record like this one, it would be unsporting to give the game away, say I. As if I could describe such an overall bravura performance -- though at one point, however, it does make me think of a guitar being put on a sawmill belt to be cut in half... and resisting the blade and winning the battle.

"Bar de Nuit" is a tour de force of subtly coloured playing, even after the slow intro explodes in a dance rhythm. Reharmonisation -- growls from depths one hadn't supposed the beast possessed. Acoustic heavy metal meets squiffy Bach? Other tunes are called "R & Bi" and, of course, "To Bi or Not to Bi". Fun!

The big band set, which seems to have been issued earlier on the band's or the radio station's own label, demonstrates the quality to be expected from a big band run under the auspices of a major European radio station. The London BBC one, featuring some of the best soloists in the country, can be heard weekly on online, but I don't know about chances to hear the WDR one.

Unfortunate, because they're very impressive on this set, with Lagréne's electric guitar in modern mainstream style and excellent soloists. "Blues en Mineur" opens with Dave Horler's valve trombone, John Gooldsby's bass prominent, and the guitarist in an accompanying role behind Frank Chastenier's piano, separated from the trombone solo only by a small orchestral passage. Then it's Lagréne, individual as always, but in a Wes Montgomery vein. Eventually there's the same band that opens the set, beautifully balanced with the guitarist. Jens Neufang plays nice lyrical baritone with almost tenor sax tone on "Anouman", and that ballad is followed by "Fleche d'Or", on which the same man plays impressive bass clarinet. This dedication to the golden arrow train is a popular feature with Reinhardt fans, and sometimes a band will feel up to playing it. Lagréne is very boppish on this one, and only the composer credit is really Reinhardt.

The same is by and large true of the other five Reinhardt numbers, here with Ellington's "Caravan", and "All of Me" -- unlike the other tracks, these were arranged by Dave Horler rather than Mike Abene, the distinguished American leader of this band, who conducts throughout. Thad Jones and the still very active trombone maestro Jiggs Whigham are among other North Americans partly responsible for the high standard of these orchestras.

On "The Good Life" and "Shadow of Your Smile", there are very strongly Sinatran vocals from Lagréne, and the modern mainstream, sometimes Basie-ish big band arrangements would have suited the original too. John Marshall gets most of the trumpet solos, but everybody is very able and plays well. All in all a very professional job.

I'm not sure how well these CDs fit together, but they do represent very different sides of the guitarist.


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