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Django Reinhardt: The Complete Django Reinhardt and Quintet of the Hot Club of France Swing/HMV Sessions 1936-1948

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Django Reinhardt remains a difficult figure to categorize. Unquestionably a genius of the guitar, and just as doubtlessly the first important European jazzman, it is still awkward to place him in a context that includes American jazz musicians. My favorite observation about Django was made by Kenny Burrell, who noted that his phenomenal virtuosity despite his mutilated left hand provides the ultimate proof that technique is a mental, not a physical, question.

This set gathers together all the recordings made under Reinhardt’s name and that of The Quintet of the Hot Club of France for HMV and the important Swing label. It features a lot of the great Reinhardt-Grappelli group, assorted odds and ends and the wartime quintet that formed after the violinist fled to England in 1939. Not included are the great Swing sessions that came out under the names of Coleman Hawkins, Eddie South and Bill Coleman, on which Django was a sideman. Also beyond the scope of the present collection are the important recordings made for Ultraphone and Decca.

The first three discs here are predominated by recordings of the classic quintet, and it need hardly be said that this is really great music that just sounds better as the years go by. It seems pointless to single out the highest peaks in such a stunning range. There are also some great Django solos and a few other departures. The only tracks that probably wouldn’t get reissued on any but a complete edition are the weird versions of “Bolero” and “Mabel” from the 12/14/37 session.

Admittedly the wartime quintet, which featured clarinetists Hubert Rostaing or Gerard Leveque with guitar-bass-drums rhythm rather than two guitars and bass, is less compelling than the Grappelli group, but it’s crazy to overlook Reinhardt’s spectacular playing during this period.

Ironically, Reinhardt had his greatest success under the Nazis, even as he lived in constant fear that some mischance could deliver him to the same fate suffered by millions of other Gypsies. Basically the wartime editions of the quintet account for two of the remaining CDs, with postwar Grappelli quintets making up the third. Grappelli is even harder to rate than Reinhardt. He can lose direction in the middle of an inspired solo or come up with something electrifying right when you think he’s going through the motions. The violinist’s relationship with Django was rocky from the get-go-descriptions by one of the other usually boiled down to the same three-letter word-but the combination unquestionably produced the greatest music for both men. Fortunately, there is lots of it.

As always, Mosaic includes a great booklet in their deluxe production, and this one has excellent notes by guitarist-writer Mike Peters. Peters’ provocative insights have enhanced my enjoyment of the music, even though I see things slightly differently at times. For instance, I appreciated his singling out of Django’s wonderful solo on “I’ll See You in My Dreams” as his greatest, comparable in its position in his oeuvre with Armstrong’s “West End Blues” or Parker’s “Koko.” But I wouldn’t personally invite comparisons with such figures even obliquely; fantastic as this solo is, the development from the first chorus to the second doesn’t seem as convincing to me as the very greatest jazz. Here we encounter the difficulty of comparing Reinhardt to the best Americans, some of which has to do with how we define “swing.” There is a strict school of thought that would never allow that Django swings, and while I have problems with any definition that excludes musicians whose drive is as terrific as Reinhardt’s, there is a different rhythmic value to his eighth-notes and even a subtle difference in how he feels the quarters. I would say he swings, and hard, but differently. Because of this, I had never really seen how deeply Armstrong influenced Django, but Peters does such a good job detailing that influence that I finally got it. I also would say that, while Django is an emotional player, I don’t hear in his work the depth of expression that I do in Lester Young, Ben Webster, Miles Davis, Bud Powell and the couple of dozen other improvisers I would place in the very highest echelons.

Peters’ bold assertion that Reinhardt and Grappelli represent the greatest partnership in jazz is hard to argue with, but I balk at characterizing the quintet’s music as “some of the greatest jazz ever created.” Again it’s a matter of definitions. I do think that Django is a brilliant soloist and Grappelli is an excellent one, and the quintet that features them has a delightful and original sound, but the fact that three of the five members are so strictly subordinate as to be practically anonymous clashes with my personal idea about what constitutes a great jazz group. Still, no matter how one defines things, there is no question that this is music for the ages. By mail order only: 203-327-7111.