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Bireli Lagrene: Gypsy Project

There is nothing surprising on Gypsy Project-just a lot of dazzling, rhythmically surging fretboard fireworks in the grand Gypsy tradition-and I expected nothing less from Lagrene, perhaps the greatest living exponent of Django Reinhardt’s legacy today. Lagrene was a guitar wunderkind when he made his first stateside appearance in 1981 at the age of 15. Already a remarkably seasoned player who had been three years into his recording career by then, Lagrene showed an uncanny nonchalance on the bandstand as he burned his way through Reinhardt staples with pyrotechnic ease. Fast forward 20 years and Lagrene is still chasing the ghost of Django, albeit with far more emotional range, sheer muscularity and humor than the wunderkind was able to summon.

Accompanied by a crew of fellow Djangophiles-guitarists Hono Winterstein and Holzmano Lagrene, bassist Diego Imbert and violinist Florin Niculescu-Lagrene turns in frisky readings of post-1940 Reinhardt pieces like “Blues Clair,” the urgently swinging “Belleville” and “Swing 42.” He turns the schmaltz of “Embraceable You” into a driving tour de force of swing reminiscent of Django’s prewar romps like “Shine” and “Nagasaki.” It’s hard to imagine the 15-year-old Lagrene swinging with such relaxed savoir faire on “Viper’s Dream,” plumbing the romantic depths on “Vous et Moi” or “Je Suis Seul Ce Soir” or having the wherewithal to seamlessly incorporate the head of Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” into the fabric of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” as nimbly and effortlessly as the 35-year-old Lagrene does. And the younger Bireli couldn’t match the finger-busting fretboard virtuosity that the mature Lagrene engages in on “Festival 48” or the jaw-dropping exchanges he has with guest accordionist Richard Galliano on “Daphne.”

This excellent recording-a superb addition to any Djangophile’s collection-is proof that guitarists, like fine wine, improve with age.

Originally Published