Bireli Lagrene: Return to Django

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Bireli Lagrene
By Philippe Etheldrede

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It's 1988, and guitarist Bireli Lagrene is onstage at the Village Vanguard. A decade earlier, at age 12, the gypsy phenom had stunned the world with his remarkably accurate interpretations of Django Reinhardt's ornate, precisely picked, urgently swinging gypsy jazz.

In the audience is Blue Note Records executive Bruce Lundvall, reveling in the recent signing of this budding guitar god. Also seated in the audience, in his usual spot near the door, is Vanguard proprietor Max Gordon, well into his 70s now, sometimes can be seen nodding off in his chair during any given set.

Lagrene's set proceeds in fine, swinging fashion, wowing the Vanguard faithful. Toward the end Gordon falls into snooze mode-only to be suddenly jolted awake when the guitarist stomps on his distortion pedal and launches into a ferocious overdrive solo that nearly knocks Gordon off his chair. Meanwhile, Lundvall has his face buried in his hands and is shaking his head as if to say, "What have I done?"
Lagrene hasn't been invited back to the Vanguard ever since.

Nearly 17 years later, the guitarist recalls the incident: "Wow! They were pretty upset," he chuckles over the phone from his home in the Strasbourg, France. Then 22, Lagrene was just delving headlong into the visceral power of electric guitars in the wake of an eye-opening European tour with Jaco Pastorius. He just hadn't told anyone of his plans to let it rip at the Vanguard.

Born a Sinti Gypsy on September 4, 1966, in the border region between France and Germany known commonly as the Alsace, Lagrene started playing guitar at the age of four, which is considered early even by Gypsy standards, and by age seven he was already fluent in jazz. His father Fiso, a rhythm guitarist who played in bands during the 1940s in France, was Lagrene's first teacher, although by all accounts the kid was a natural. "I actually picked up the instrument really fast and turned quickly to Django's music when I was five or six years old," Lagrene says. "And my brother and I, we played that music together every single day at that age. My dad taught me a little bit, a few chords in the beginning. And from what my brother says, I was very fast in picking up things, so my dad didn't need to teach me any further."

In 1978 Lagrene won a prize at a festival in Strasbourg and subsequently made a big impact during a televised Gypsy festival. Guitarist Larry Coryell recalls first meeting young Lagrene backstage at a festival in Strasbourg, where he and Philip Catherine were playing with legendary violinist Stephane Grappelli, Reinhardt's frequent collaborator. "Before the gig they brought this kid in. He was awkward-looking and kind of homely-this was before he had his teeth fixed," Coryell says. "And he was real small, really dwarfed by the guitar. His dad was there-I remember he was drunk. But Bireli took out his Django-style guitar and started to play, and I couldn't believe it. He sounded exactly like Django Reinhardt. It was incredible. And after he finished this little demonstration backstage, I remember someone-not his dad but another kind of representative of Bireli-saying, 'Monsieur Lagrene would like to play some titles with Monsieur Grappelli.' And it ended up that at the end of our concert, Stephane brought him on to play. I think he might've borrowed Philip's guitar because he had broken a string on his own-that's how hard he played. After he played I was traumatized. I remember thinking, 'My god, this cat is totally amazing!' Later that night, Stephane commented, 'We only need one Django.' But I was still amazed. This kid played just like Django Rein-hardt-just tearing through stuff. He was truly amazing."

In 1981, Ron Goldstein, then the head of Antilles and now president of Verve, had eyes to sign Lagrene. As he recalls, "Chris Blackwell [of Island Records] called me one day and started telling me about this Gypsy guitar player. We had just started the Antilles jazz operation and this very much interested me, so I went over there to meet Bireli. There was a first album that he had already recorded [Routes to Django: Live, 1980], so I went over with the idea of licensing that album for the States and then doing a new album with him. He was obviously young-very nice, very quiet. What I remember most was all he wanted to do was play music; that was on his mind all the time. The other thing I remember, vividly, was when the Island U.K. company brought him over to London, and he came over with a group of family people. They were all Gypsies-I don't know if they were brothers or cousins or whatever. I just remember that they were all carrying eight-inch knives."

After spending a decade growing up and playing in Djangomania, Lagrene rebelled. He spent the late '80s and early '90s rocking out with electric guitars, various effects pedals and Eddie Van Halen-style two-hand tapping techniques-as documented on his aptly titled 1988 Blue Note debut, Inferno, and his 1989 follow-up, Foreign Affairs, as well as on one boisterous track from 1991's Acoustic Moments, the defiantly punkish "Metal Earthquake."

But the late Max Gordon would no doubt approve of what Lagrene has been up to over the past few years, returning to the music that had won him so many accolades as a prodigious but puny kid. Now 38, the guitarist is a veteran who has grown into a bear of a man with two children of his own (17-year-old Timothee and 12-year-old Zoe). His wealth of musical experience allows Lagrene to approach Reinhardt fare like "Blues Clair," "Djangology," "Embraceable You," "Daphne," "Viper's Dream" and "Troublant Bolero" with a much deeper understanding of the material. Lagrene's flawless time, dazzling speed and fretboard filigrees are still very much a part of his guitar vocabulary, but now there's also a newfound sense of playfulness and daring in his delivery.

Simply put, Lagrene's bigger, stronger and more savvy now-far better equipped to squeeze the juice out of every note with his muscular finger vibrato, to drive a band with his powerfully propulsive right-hand strumming or to wring feeling from a phrase with a gracefully nuanced touch.

To see a prime example of Lagrene's take on Reinhardt, check out the recent DVD Live Jazz a Vienne (Dreyfus), which documents four hours of musical fireworks by Lagrene's Gipsy Project at a July 9, 2002, concert featuring special guests Martin Weiss (violin), Richard Galliano (accordion) and nine other Djangophile guitarists including Stochelo Rosenberg, Dorado Schmitt, Angelo Debarre, Sylvain Luc and Django's grandson David Reinhardt. (The DVD also includes rare footage of a 14-year-old Lagrene making his debut appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1981.)

Lagrene's triumphant recorded return to Reinhardt's music was on 2001's Gypsy Project (Dreyfus), which featured the Hot Club of France-style lineup of two rhythm guitars (Holzmano Lagrene and Hono Winterstein), upright bass (Diego Imbert) and violin (Florin Niculescu). "I never thought I would go back, never in a million years," Lagrene says. "But I look at it in a different way now. I'm definitely taking a different approach now than when I was much younger. I think growing up helped me a lot. Now I put much more of my own personality into it instead of just trying to copy Django exactly. I try to move a little further with it when I'm playing those same tunes now."

As Gary Giddins observed in his Village Voice review of Gypsy Project: "Lagrene's understanding of Reinhardt is deep and abiding, but he doesn't belong to that world, and probably doesn't give much thought to it."

"I grew up with Django's music, so it's really easier for me to go back to playing it than someone who never played it at all," Lagrene says. "It's very natural for me to be doing this. I did have to woodshed for a few months because I was a bit rusty, but it all came back to me again."

Lagrene followed up the Gypsy Project success with another Reinhardt-inspired outing in 2002, Gipsy Project & Friends, which features the previous CD's core group augmented by special guests Stochelo Rosenberg and Thomas Dutronc on guitars and Henri Salvador on vocals. Now comes the potent Move, which has Lagrene and the Gipsy Project working through uptempo scorchers like Reinhardt's obscure "Hungaria," Denzil Best's knuckle-busting "Move," an impossibly fast rendition of Ray Noble's "Cherokee" and bassist Diego Imbert's jaunty opener "Un Certain Je ne Sais Quoi" as well as more subdued fare like Django's dreamy "Melodie au Crepuscule" or his tango-flavored "Troublant Bolero." Lagrene even manages to inject some fresh reharmonizations into the fabric of Reinhardt's classic "Nuages," a tune he has no doubt played thousands of times. On his original "Place du Tertre," Lagrene detours from the program somewhat to peal off streams of bluesy notes on electric guitar that sound more like Les Paul-isms than Django-isms. Likewise, on a sizzling rendition of Dorado Schmitt's "Mimosa," Lagrene's blazing fretwork on the electric guitar bears the postbop stamp of George Benson or Pat Martino. He ends Move on a beguiling note with the introspective solo original "Jadis," performed on a detuned acoustic guitar.

As Move proves, Lagrene says the obligation he once felt to live up to Reinhardt's legacy has been lifted. So now when the guitarist delves into renditions of "Swing 42," "Minor Swing" or "Djangology," he can relax, get into the groove and just enjoy the process of making music with his comrades. "When I was a teenager they wanted me to play that particular music and nothing else because they thought I was like a second Django. That's an amazing amount of pressure for any teenage kid to handle. And that's why I left everything behind me and just went on my own and was seeking something else. Now, after doing so many other things in my career, I have so much more fun playing and I enjoy being looked upon as just a musician, as a guitar player, and not as someone who copies someone else. That really gives me the freedom of going wherever I want musically. That's a good feeling."

The other big change about Move is the Gipsy Project's addition of saxophonist Franck Wolf, who replaces the extraordinary violinist Florin Niculescu, the Grappelli-esque foil to Lagrene's Reinhardt on the group's previous outings. Affecting a robust, smoky tone and easy swinging sensibility on both tenor and alto saxes, and soaring with high-note bravura on soprano sax on both "Cherokee" and the title track, Wolf lends a decidedly jazzy character to this crack ensemble, recalling some of Reinhardt's late-'30s encounters in Paris with Coleman Hawkins. "Franck is a longtime friend," Lagrene says. "We played together years ago, and for this new album I was thinking of him because we really get along very well, both personally and musically. His whole sound brings a new feel to the band."

Lagrene and the Gipsy Project will embark on an eight-city tour of America in March in support of Move, but before that he'll tour Europe with Hammond B3 king Joey DeFrancesco and the great French drummer Andre Ceccarelli, with whom he recently cut a studio recording. The common ground for Lagrene and DeFrancesco-aside from their eagerness to play at supersonic tempos-is Frank Sinatra. Both have recorded Sinatra tributes-Lagrene's Blue Eyes (Dreyfus) in '97, which features him in a rare singing role, and DeFrancesco's Plays Sinatra His Way (HighNote) in 2004. Expect the sparks to fly when these two burners get together.

Max, wherever you are, wake up; you won't want to miss this.

Listening Pleasures

"I still listen to Weather Report once in a while as well as a little bit of classical music, like Bach. But most of the time I'm listening to all these guitar players who are sending me their CDs, and a lot of them are wonderful players."

Gearbox

Lagrene's main ax is a customized D-hole guitar with the standard Django-style cutaway made by the French luthier Maurice Dupont. He uses Argentine brand strings made by the Spanish company Savarez. "Someone told me that Django used that same brand back in the '40s," he says. "Those are special strings that go well with those kind of Django guitars." Lagrene recently acquired a new D-hole guitar made by the German luthier Stephan Hahl, and he also still has his Jacques Favino Django-styled acoustic guitar, which he bought in Paris at the age of 12. His electric guitar is a hollow body Gibson Super 5.

Originally published in March 2005

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