Django’s Legacy

July 25, 2012

During his short life, Django Reinhardt influenced many jazz guitarists. It could hardly have been otherwise. He was an innovative genius; in a word, he was original.

This man, who appeared to have come out of nowhere, seemed not to have built his playing style on that of any other jazz guitarist, continues to influence jazz guitarists, many of whom were born after he died.

Django had the most unlikely beginnings, born into a gypsy life, with all the prejudice and discrimination that meant. He was born Jean Baptiste Reinhardt an 23 January 1910, in Liberchies, which is near Luttre, Belgium. Living a nomadic life with his gypsy family, he first played violin but later took up the guitar and worked in a touring show before he was in his teens. Everything could have come to an abrupt stop when in 1928 he suffered serious injuries in a caravan fire. The worst of the damage was to his left hand, and ever after he could not use two of his fingers. Remarkably, Django devised a unique method of fingering the guitar and began a solo career in clubs, mainly in Paris, where he soon made startlingly clear that he was different. It was in Paris, in 1934, that he and violinist Stéphane Grappelli formed the Quintette Du Hot Club De France.

With this group and through sitting in with visiting American jazzmen, Django made many records and swiftly earned an international reputation.  Django-on-radio cdIn today’s pop music world, international sensations happen often, real and manufactured; at the time, the late 1930s, it was unusual and in his case even more remarkable because non-Americans simply did not make an impact on jazz. He did, and it was an impact that has continued to have its effect through the decades.

 

Directly affected by Reinhardt was his co-leader of the QHCDF, Stéphane Grappelli. Apart from his work in that group, he can be heard on many albums because he lived a long life and enjoyed a full career, being eagerly embraced by a new young audience from the 1970s onwards. An interesting CD of Grappelli’s music is Improvisations (Essential Jazz Classics), which draws mainly from recordings made when the violinist was between his first key period, when he was alongside Django, and the second, which came after he had become a notable figure on the world stage. This in-between spell, the mid-1950s, can be heard here on sets that are particularly rewarding, in part because Grappelli is no longer playing second fiddle to Reinhardt but is an increasingly confident leader.  Stephane-Grappelli-sketchPerhaps deliberately, he largely avoids comparisons by working without a guitar on many tracks. He does, though, return occasionally to his roots and in whatever group setting displays invention and swing, is always thoroughly melodic, and consistently demonstrates how jazz can be simultaneously light-hearted and emotionally fulfilling.

A near-contemporary of Django’s was Oscar Alemán, a self-taught Argentine guitarist who visited France in the 1930s where he encountered Django and completely embraced the new style of jazz guitar playing. The extent of his conversion can be heard on Swing Guitar Masterpieces (Acoustic Disc), recorded in Copenhagen, Paris, and Buenos Aires between 1938 and 1954. Later in his career, Alemán began to play with more reference to his South American heritage, but the impact Django had made never left him as can be heard on Buenos Aires 1965 1975 (Frémeaux).

 Oscar-Aleman cd

The lasting impact of the QHCDF can be seen from the number of bands that have followed their example through the years. For example, there is the New Quintette Du Hot Club De France, a group led by Django’s son, Babik Reinhardt (1944-2001), and who can be heard on a self-titled 1998 recording reissued on Frémeaux. This CD demonstrates the respect Babik and his companions had for the original creators of this style although, fortunately, Babik was clearly aware that his father was inimitable and he and his colleagues seek not to copy but to breathe the master’s spirit. Similarly breathing the spirit is the Hot Club de Norvege, a band formed in 1979 and still playing today. Guitarists Jon Larsen and Per Frydenlund, bassist Svein Aarbostad and violinist Ivar Brodahl (later succeeded by Finn Hauge) appear on a number of well-received albums, among them Swing de Paris (Hot Club) and Django Music (Hot Club).

Then there is Austrian gypsy guitarist Harri Stojka, who can be set amidst the front runners in the specialist field of those who perpetuate the airily swinging music of Django. Harri’s playing is deft and fleet; his single note lines are dramatic and swing fluently. Harri can be heard on A Tribute To Gypsy Swing (ZoHo) on which his violinist is Eva Berky. Together, they play many items that nestled in the repertoire of the QHCDF, notably Reinhardt’s own compositions, Nuages and Nuits De Saint-Germaine-Des-Pres. This is exceptionally attractive music, played to perfection by a fine guitarist.

The USA is not left out of the admiring circle of enthusiasts of the music of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. On a 2004 CD by jazz singer Connie Evingson, Gypsy In My Soul (Minnehaha),  Connie-Evingson cdshe presents music inspired by Django and teams up with three different QHCDF-style bands: the Clearwater Hot Club, the Parisota Hot Club and Pearl Django. The music is vibrant and colorful and singer and instrumentalists revel in the free, open swing that admirably reflects the gypsy legend. Mostly the songs are standards, along with a couple of Django’s own compositions, Nuages and Anouman, the latter having a new lyric by Evingson herself.

In the UK, guitarist Martin Taylor, who worked with Stéphane Grappelli in the 1970s, formed Spirit of Django in 1994 and became very popular with a Jazz Album Chart No 1 as well as poll success in the USA. Recently, marking the centenary of Django’s birth, Martin reformed the group with Alan Barnes and released Last Train to Hauteville (The Guitar Label).  Martin-Taylor cdThe group also appeared in concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, proof, if needed, that the music and the spirit of Django Reinhardt remain as powerful as ever, despite all the musical and cultural changes that have taken place in the past half century.

 

 

Listening to Django Reinhardt’s music today, all these years after his death in Fontainebleau, France, on 16 May 1953, it is still vividly apparent why he was such an important influence on the development of jazz guitar music. His distinctive, flowing lines are filled with inventive ideas and although often overflowing with deeply romantic melodies are always intensely rhythmic. His compositions are many and include Manoir De Mes Rêves, Djangology, Anouman, Nuits De Saint-Germaine-Des-Pres and Nuages, the latter a gorgeously dreamy ballad.

Django himself can be heard on many reissues, among them Django D’Or (Gazell), Anthologie (Cristal) and The Best of the Radio Sessions (Fuel), while an unusual CD, and one perhaps best-suited to serious followers, especially those who play the guitar, is Complete Solo Guitar And Duet Recordings (Essential Jazz Classics). For the general listener, though, eager to hear a lot from this master jazz guitarist at work, extensive and attractive multiple-CD boxed sets abound, including Postwar Recordings 1944-1954 (JSP), Djangology (Red/Membran) and Swing de Paris (Properbox).

Swing-de-Paris box set

 

 

 

Jazz Violin

May 6, 2012

No middle ground …

Love it or hate it, in jazz history there seldom seems to be any middle ground for the violin. Almost from the start, the violin has often been derided or at best ignored. If the average jazz fan – always assuming that such creatures exist – were to be asked to list favorite instrumentalists what might be the result? (This is not the time to get into jazz singing; that needs, and will later receive, separate and special treatment.)

So, staying with favorite jazz instrumentalists, our (perhaps mythical) average jazz fan will list quite a few names of trumpeters and pianists, some alto saxophonists, and there will be tenor saxophonists by the bus load. Maybe there will be an occasional trombonist and a handful of guitarists (if the fan questioned is young, a whole lot more than a handful); older fans might well list a clarinetist or two, perhaps a bassist. But regardless of age, how many of the jazz fans asked this question will nominate a violinist?

I can’t prove it, because that involves surveys and voting and ballot boxes and heaven knows what other boring stuff, but my guess is that not only will very few fans list a violinist but that the majority of fans will list none at all. Which is, to put it mildly, very unfair.

 

Involved from the start …

The violin has been involved in jazz music history from the start. Back in the very earliest days, as the new music was being tried out in dance halls and juke joints, most bands had at least one violin and in many the violinist was leader. Not surprising, really.  Consider New Orleans; at the turn of the century there was music of all kinds everywhere, including three opera houses, and hundreds of musicians were needed. Given that almost all of the music being played was of European origin, or at least in that tradition, the instrumentation required to play it included many violins. Being able to play a violin well (and read music) was to be almost guaranteed work and violinists of the era did rather well.Unfortunately, as the new forms of dance music took on board the early strains of what would come to be known as jazz, the violin was nudged aside. This was not because of any failing on the part of the players; as suggested, they were highly skilled practitioners and could read and play anything put before them. But this was long before amplification was even thought of and the new music was loud. The violin was simply drowned out by the trumpet and trombone and quite soon the unwritten standard combo format took shape: trumpet, trombone, clarinet (which had to struggle against the brass), piano, banjo, tuba and drums. A few years on and the string bass had replaced the tuba and the guitar had elbowed out the banjo. Experiments with amplification then allowed guitarists to make themselves heard, eventually with startling results throughout pop music. Some violinists also experimented with amplification, but by this time the violin had been in the wilderness too long and for all practical purposes its numerous qualities as a front-line instrument were lost to jazz.

Some fine examples …

Of course, there were a few jazz violin artists who hung on through the years of the swing era, some in remote corners. For example there were Emilio Caceres (who brought a torrid touch of norteño to jazz); Eddie South (classically trained with an especially melodic approach to jazz); Joe Venuti (notably in his collaborations with guitarist Eddie Lang); Stuff Smith (especially as co-leader with trumpeter Jonah Jones of the Onyx Club band); John Frigo (who with Herb Ellis and Lou Carter formed Soft Winds). Meanwhile, at the other side of the ocean were Stéphane Grappelli and Svend Asmussen, both leading long and fruitful jazz lives. But many musicians used the violin only when they doubled with another more ‘acceptable’ instrument; among them Claude Williams, Ray Perry, Ray Nance.

In later, post-bop years, some of these names enjoyed a resurgence of interest (Venuti, Smith, Grappelli and Asmussen in particular). There was also a handful of newcomers for whom the violin was not only the first if not the only choice but who also defied convention and brought the violin into vivid contact with contemporary aspects of jazz: Jean-Luc Ponty, Leroy Jenkins, John Blake, Michel Urbaniak, Billy Bang. These violinists played on into the 21st century, a time that saw the emergence of the remarkable Regina Carter.Jazz violin lady And if not quite jazz, think about another remarkable young woman, Lucia Micarelli,  who acts in and plays up a post-Katrina storm in the TV series, Treme.

 

 

Love it or hate it …

What is (or should be) immediately apparent from all the violinists named here is that the recorded evidence clearly demonstrates that they were gifted musicians, in many instances displaying great improvisational skills that were at least on par with their better-known contemporaries who played trumpet or piano or tenor saxophone. Indeed, if they were to be analyzed fairly, violinists such as Venuti, Smith, Bang and Carter would tick more boxes than many poll-toppers whose playing of brass and woodwind instruments blinded some fans and writers to the fact that, if judged impartially as musicians, they were distinctly less gifted.

If you want to hear some examples of jazz violin playing at its best, then listen to some or all of the following recordings. Doing this with an open mind (and open ears, of course)  will surely not disappoint you.

 

Joe Venuti

Joe Venuti & George Barnes Live At The Concord Summer Jazz Festival (Concord Jazz)

Joe Venuti & George Barnes Gems (Concord Jazz)

Joe Venuti & Earl Hines Hot Sonatas (Chiaroscuro)

Joe Venuti & Dave McKenna Alone At The Palace (Chiaroscuro)

Joe Venuti & Scott Hamilton Live At Concord ’77 (Concord Jazz)

 

Whether playing solo or in duets with his co-leaders, Joe Venuti is in sparkling form, always inventive and swinging ferociously. If you think you have time for only one track, try “Sweet Georgia Brown”, which opens Live At The Concord Summer Jazz Festival. Chances are, you will be instantly hooked.

Joe-Venuti-album

 

 

 

 

Stuff Smith

Stuff Smith & Dizzy Gillespie & Oscar Peterson (PolyGram)

Herb Ellis & Stuff Smith Together (Epic)

Stuff Smith Swinging’ Stuff (Metronome)

Stuff Smith & Stéphane Grappelli Stuff & Steff (Barclay)

Stuff Smith & Svend Asmussen Hot Violins (Storyville)

 

Always driving, Stuff Smith vividly displays his take-charge persona throughout these sets. On two occasions, his style is strikingly contrasted with two other veteran violinists, thus presenting an opportunity not only to hear them too, but also to experience why Smith was one of the most commanding instrumentalists in jazz, regardless of instrument.

 Stuff-Smith-album

 

 

 

 

 

Billy Bang

Billy Bang Vietnam: The Aftermath (Justin Time)

William Parker Scrapbook (Thirsty Ear)

Billy Bang Above & Beyond: An Evening In Grand Rapids (Justin Time)

FAB Trio Transforming The Space (CIMP)

FAB Trio History Of Jazz In Reverse (TUM)

 

Thoroughly contemporary, blending post-bop echoes with improv, Billy Bang always shines. His instrumental virtuosity is underpinned by his extensive imagination and a striking ability to find musical images from earlier eras that fit perfectly into latterday musical concepts.

 Billy-Bang-album

 

 

 

 

 

Regina Carter

Regina Carter I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (Verve)

Regina Carter Motor City Moments (PolyGram)

Regina Carter & Kenny Barron Freefall (Verve)

Regina Carter Reverse Thread (E1 Music)

 

Regina Carter is at ease playing popular songs and show tunes, as on the first of these sets, and taking a new look at jazz standards, as she does in the duo with Kenny Barron. On the fourth of these, she explores the rich tapestry of African folk music, creating eloquent contemporary jazz statements. Throughout, Regina Carter is never less than awesome.

 Regina-Carter-album

 

 

 

 

This began with the words ‘love it or hate it’. If you already love jazz violin, then nothing more need be said. However, if you are currently in the other camp, then perhaps your curiosity has been aroused. I certainly hope so …

… been here and gone!

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