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September 2007

Biréli Lagrène
Djangology/To Bi or Not To Bi
Dreyfus Jazz

Ever since his 1980 recording debut as a 13-year-old prodigy, gypsy guitarist Biréli Lagrène has proven to be an immensely talented enigma. His new double-live set, Djangology/To Bi or Not To Bi, will do nothing to change that. The controlled Djangology also features the WDR Big Band at the Kölner Philharmonie in Germany, and the chaotic To Bi or Not To Bi is compiled from solo Lagrène performances at various international locales, so the 40-year-old guitarist practically comes across as musically bipolar.

Part of this is intentional. Lagrène has always defied categorization, going from early comparisons to gypsy-jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt to playing fusion with Jaco Pastorius, then recording a Frank Sinatra tribute (as both guitarist and vocalist) and coming full circle with his Gypsy Project recordings.

Djangology, Lagrène’s first big-band CD ever, adds yet another chapter. The guitarist quotes “Pop Goes the Weasel” during his solo on the opening “Place Du Tertre,” otherwise a showcase for the 17-piece WDR and conductor Michael Abene. Lagrène also does a passable Tony Bennett impression in crooning the chestnuts “The Good Life” and “The Shadow of Your Smile,” but he’s more at home singing through his hollow-bodied electric guitar. Still, as much as he works wonders in dropping snippets of standards, those moments of humor are rare.

Flawlessly performed, Djangology nonetheless harkens back more to Stan Kenton than Duke Ellington, perhaps a product of former Maynard Ferguson Big Band member Abene. (The disc suffers by comparison to the recent Brown Street by Joe Zawinul, a grooving, rhythmic double-CD also recorded live with the WDR.)

Lagrène displays the polar opposite side of his playing on the acoustic, humor-drenched To Bi or Not To Bi. “Sur La Croisette” opens the disc slowly by comparison to the remainder, even as the guitarist displays influences from Reinhardt to Wes Montgomery. “R & Bi” is a blinding, percussive showcase featuring a nod to Pastorius’ composition “Teen Town,” and “Madras Express” a radically detuned masterpiece in which Lagrène achieves droning Middle Eastern effects. Throughout, he also quotes Miles Davis, Sinatra, Buddy Miles and Wilson Pickett, if with the occasional one-man overkill of Friday Night in San Francisco, the 1980 live album by Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco DeLucia.

As a good live album should, this double-disc will make listeners wish they had been there. In the case of Djangology, that’s because most big band music must be witnessed to be appreciated. In the case of To Bi or Not To Bi, it’s because these solo performances would have to be seen to be believed.

Originally published in September 2007
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