Djangophile and promoter Pat Philips is faced with the same challenge each year: how to put a new spin on her annual celebration of the Gypsy guitarist’s swing-era brilliance. Along with her partner Ettore Stratta, Philips has built an audience of fellow Djangophiles, some of whom travel from Europe and around the States for this six-night clambake, now in its ninth year. They are treated to the usual toe-tapping uptempo fare and romantic ballads associated with the man whom Leonard Feather referred to as “the first foreign jazz musician to have a profound influence in the United States.” This giddy, swinging music, which had its beginnings back in 1934 when Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli joined forces in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, has a way of eliciting wide smiles, both from the musicians on the bandstand and from the fans in the audience. And this year’s Djangofest was no exception.
Back again for another year as musical director was bassist Brian Torff, a former Grappelli sideman who holds down the bristling proceedings with authority while offering some virtuosic turns on his upright. Also returning from past Django celebrations at Birdland were the young Gypsy guitar phenom Samson Schmitt, son of Gypsy jazz star Dorado Schmitt, and the remarkable accordion virtuoso Ludovic Beier, a fleet-fingered, harmonically adventurous Parisian who consistently wows audiences with his uncanny dexterity on the Roland digital accordion, which is capable of triggering all manner of sampled sounds from banjo to clarinet to nylon string guitar and beyond.
Appearing for their first go-round at the Django Reinhardt New York Festival were the dazzling Swedish guitarist Andreas Oberg, the swinging French violinist Timbo Mehrstein and Samson Schmitt’s 18-year-old rhythm guitar-playing brother Bronson. Special guest on this evening of Gypsy jazz was harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy, the former Flecktone who ignited the bandstand with his unparalleled chops on the diatonic harp. Also making their first Djangofest appearances (on Nov. 7) were the American group Hot Club of Detroit, led by Reinhardt disciple Evan Perri, and the Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda.
While guitarist Samson Schmitt is steeped in the Django tradition, he also demonstrated some more modernist, bebop-inspired touches throughout the evening (although Reinhardt himself did begin incorporating some boppish phrasing into his playing by 1949). His displays of sweep picking, dazzling arpeggios and nonchalant flourishes up and down the neck of his Manouche-style acoustic guitar on “Daphne” were executed with the kind of nonchalance that Django himself exuded in his playing, but were staggering nonetheless. Samson also burned a blue streak on the Django speedster “Coquette,” eliciting hoots and whistles from all the fretboard aficionados present. On Dorado Schmitt’s lyrical ballad “Souvenir,” Beier switched back and forth from the accordina, a kind of cross between a melodica and an accordion, and his regular instrument. At some point in his dexterous accordion solo, he triggered a digital chorus of human voices singing “doo doo doo” with each key he pressed, emulating the Swingle Singers in full flight.
Guitarist Oberg, who alternated between acoustic and hollow-body electric guitar throughout the set, was featured on Django’s bluesy, midtempo masterpiece “Troublant Bolero,” on which he exhibited some expressive string bends and creative use of harmonics, along with a free-flowing, over-the-barline sense of phrasing and a Bensonesque technique of soloing while simultaneously scatting.
Harmonica ace Levy turned in an emotionally charged reading of the Django staple, “Nuages.” And on the rousing jam finale, “Lady Be Good,” he launched a stunning salvo of fiery, Bird-like exchanges with Beier, nimbly dropping in quotes from “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” along the way.
With these spirited and virtuosic performances by all the participants, Philips has raised the bar once again on expectations for next year’s Djangofest at Birdland.