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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.