Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Gypsy Swing

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to Gypsy Swing
World Music Network

Django Reinhardt music has been receiving decent attention of late, with a celebration at Birdland represented on CD with — as well as Regina Carter’s command of jazz fiddle, Stuff Smith to Stephane Grappelli — a cross section of jazz guitar, especially analysable for Django content because it’s so good to the ears. I had a preview of Woody Allen’s parody of the jazz bio-pic Sweet and Lowdown when the Allen soundtrack and Birdland fiesta star, Howard Alden, played Django solo features at an Edinburgh Jazz festival long ago. The Romane Acoustic Quartet’s opener to this set, Al Cohn’s “Symphonie”, sounds close to the Allen/Alden film’s soundtrack band. Was Allen’s virtuoso jazz guitarist (cum boozy bonzo Eugene Onegin) so in dread of Reinhardt because he was so wholly indebted to his recordings? Sharing Django’s Manouche background — gypsies whose province straddles the northern eastern French border — Romane’s debts include a common source with Reinhardt’s never far away here.

B.B. King acknowledges his own debt to the Django recordings he heard as a young man. Did Charlie Christian, say, ever mention Django? In notes to a Concord CD by his “Quintet of the Hot Club of Concord” (which develops Djangomusic rather than just echo), Charlie Byrd remembers arriving as a soldier in liberated wartime Paris, seeking out and finding Django. They met again when Django played as invited guest soloist with Duke Ellington’s band on American tour (there are a few recordings). The present set’s notes mention Django’s non-standard approach to being in the right place at the right time, and its disadvantages on that trip. It’s said that these prevented a wider success (which seems dubious) and contributed to a subsequent lack of career prominence in the years before Django’s untimely death (aged 46 in 1953). This seems an exaggeration. It’s commoner to read of regrets over his having moved over to electric guitar in those years. Romane certainly found the master’s compositions from those later years very interesting. There’s a track here from his Djangovision CD, where he’s joined by an organist and manages some Wes Montgomery licks too. The later Django seems plainly an inspiration of the New Quintette du Hot Club de France led by his son Babik (1944-2001) on the master’s “Micro”. Babik ranged farther afield stylistically, but here the style modernises as his solo develops. The violinist has a more dramatic style than Django’s old partner Stephane Grappelli.

This is an eminently successful Rough Guide sort of production; the token pedantic cavil concerns the limited sample of the pure jazzless Manouche music of Django’s boyhood. He heard jazz and Parisian café music, and integrated the latter with his Manouche background into the music he worked out after a caravan fire paralysed two of his fingers permanently. A documentary film some years back sampled some Manouche guitar music in demonstration of its proximity to Django jazz. If Django essayed a combination of ethnic European music with jazz, and other French music, nothing went into any blender. Each of them is still there, identifiable and recoverable. There is no question of any mere coloration of a melting-pot music which is losing character and soul. For Manouche music pur I suppose we have the Moreno Trio. There is a singer of words in the Rom language, to a tune attributed to one Schuckenack Reinhardt (a couple of nephews also get mentioned in the notes, but details on this remarkably named Reinhardt aren’t given).

Johnny Russell, rhythm guitarist of the Edinburgh Django band Swing 04, spoke of Fapy Lafertin, who worked with that band, as having a guitar fretboard independent of normal spatial characteristics. Its innumerable frets allowed Fapy the chords between chords between chords he alone knows. The notes mention the formal classical reference of Fapy’s music, but I do like the trans-spatial fretboard idea. Django, of course, heard records of Eddie Lang, and Lang’s beloved Segovia, and even recorded a jazz adaptation of Bach.

Is “Black Eyes” a famous Gypsy tune? I know it as “Ochii Chornie”, sung by Slav basses, and used with varying degrees of irony by various jazzmen. Turning out a stunning performance of it, Bireli Lagrene — who has played all manner of jazz — is doing what he did when he returned of late to his boyhood roots. Didier Roussin and Didi Duprat were Manouche guitarists who, as here, worked with French musicians in the bal musette style commonly parodied in television comedy with an accordion. The performance they’re on here is jazz-free and does sound a shade Slavonic. They are followed by a very Djangoesque performance, bowed bass, Django-guitar and vocal, by the curious Primitives du Futur, whose “world music” interests gave them the musical-linguistic insight to Djangoize with brio. Then, with the balance this CD is good at, we have the bal musette accordionist Guerino, Django dutifully jazzless in perfect accompaniment (he was a better rhythm section than any rhythm section he worked with regularly). This is the first of four brilliantly chosen samples from his discography here, in the middle of the track-list.

The original “Minor Swing” is among the best Quintette du Hot Club titles. On “I’se a Muggin'” the then Paris-based American Freddy Taylor deserts his piano to sing and mug with the Quintet on a Stuff Smith song. Grappelli manages parody both of himself and of the very different Smith here (thirty years before they eventually recorded together) in music more sheerly 1930s Harlem than any of the contemporary magical masterpieces he recorded with Americans in Paris (including among others Dickie, not “Dick” Wells, pace the notes) from the mid- to late 1930s. Another brilliant choice was the solo guitar “Improvisation”, which goes from Bach to flamenco. Django was, as the notes say, not wholly unique, but he was a genius. He didn’t pioneer liaisons between Manouche and bal musette and/or jazz, he just did so much more with everything he integrated. In true jazz composer style, he blazed the way for interesting footnotes to his music.

The brilliant guitarist Martin Taylor’s Spirit of Django ensemble (not represented here), has Jack Emblow’s jazz accordion, and there are precedents here for that band’s music (which adds the wondrous saxophonist Dave O’Higgins). On squeezebox, Jo Privat was bal musette, Gus Viseur swung mightily and had some nice jazzmen (the excellent altoist unnamed). We don’t have the Rosenberg trio either, other than a passing allusion in the notes, but their corner is represented by the Strasbourg guitarist Tchavolo Schmidt, who unlike them has another accordionist. The Ziroli Winterstein ensemble are three guitarists, with the option of two of them duetting over the third’s accompaniment, as well as one soloing accompanied by two. The notes don’t quite argue the case for the non-Gypsy Rodolphe Raffalli’s pacy solo guitar performance of a tune from Georges Brassens’s song repertoire, but there is a good case for it, as for Swing Gadjé’s decidedly East of Jordan music, another direction of a fiddle-guitar-squeezebox instrumentation’s growth from Gypsy origins (with an occasional vibrant Django guitar flurry).

This is a wonderful way to learn names for future CD-buying reference. The selections are neither casual nor chaotic, there’s plain depth of knowledge and imagination behind it. Any less “rough” guide to the territory/territories in question would have to be more than one CD. This recommendation is quite without reservations.