'Gypsy' State of Mind

Bireli Lagrene Returns to the Source

Bireli Lagrene, whose electrifying new album, Gypsy Project (Dreyfus Jazz), represents his best work in several years, must have days when he feels like Michael Corleone: Every time he gets away from the Django Nostra, they drag him back in. I'm not sure who "they" are, except for fans like me, who—though startled by the intensive authenticity of his homage to Sinatra (Blue Eyes, 1998), or by his reclamation of unlikely standards such as "C'est Si Bon" (Standards, 1992), or by the ostentatious bebopping excesses of what is perhaps his best previous album, Live in Marciac (1994)—long to hear him mine his Sinti roots, especially since no one else can do the Django thing with his fortitude or aplomb. To be sure, he has always revisited parts of Reinhardt's repertory: "Nuages," "Body and Soul," "I Got Rhythm" and its ubiquitous changes. But summoning Reinhardt means more than replicating a guitar style or a set of tunes or a special instrumentation (guitar, violin, bass, rhythm guitars). It means a state of mind.

It's the last part, the state of mind, that is and ought to be most elusive. With Reinhardt, it involves the innocence of prewar swing, the nose-thumbing subversions of occupied France, the cool arrogance of bebop, and, tying them together, a uniquely Gallic combination of jazz and sentiment. Lagrene captures much of that, because his understanding of Reinhardt is deep and abiding, but he doesn't belong to that world, and probably doesn't give much thought to it. The best and worst thing you can do to his Gypsy Project is compare each track to the Reinhardt models: best because the correlation underscores his originality; worst because it demonstrates the limitations of devotion and virtuosity. He lacks Django's patience, dark moods, expressive feeling, constructivist logic.

Lagrene is all fireworks and jubilation, the possessor of 10 magical fingers (Django could count on only eight) that sometimes seem to have their own minds. He needs all his wits just to control them. With the first notes of the first track, "Blues Claire," he blazes his own turf. This was a tour de force for Django in 1943—a 13-chorus blues solo, which he paced by strumming the sixth chorus and changing the game in the ninth, as the rhythm section briefly dropped out, returning to catch him in a new key. As on almost every track, Lagrene's "Blues Claire" is faster and brighter. He gets you by the short hairs right off with his knowing, percussive attack, tossing in lightning tremolos; he goes on to combine melodic comets with delirious runs, clarifying the schema with eight-bar riffs and fancy four-bar resolutions, and, after six choruses (he strums the sixth for those keeping track), turning it over to Florin Niculescu, an extraordinary violinist who reads Bireli's mind the way Stephane Grappelli read Django's. No key change, no steady buildup—just canny exhilaration, glowing tenacity, churning rhythm.

All fireworks and jubilation
photo: courtesy of Dreyfus Records
All fireworks and jubilation

In every instance but one, Lagrene's versions are shorter than Reinhardt's. Often, I wish they weren't—that he would let himself go on, if not quite as relentlessly as at Marciac then at least as much as Reinhardt. By sticking to 78-rpm-length performances, Lagrene focuses his statements, compressing them into jewel-like effusions, which is one reason this album never wears out its welcome. It's also one way Lagrene channels that aspect of the Reinhardt state of mind available to him. At Marciac, playing electric guitar (as Django sometimes did after the war, beginning with his only American tour, in 1946), he does what you'd expect to "Donna Lee" and goes over the top on "Autumn Leaves," maybe the fastest interpretation of that tune since Miles Davis played Antibes, although the brilliance itself can be wearying. The Django mindframe not only encourages him to make every note count, but increases a respect for feeling and mood, for site-specific improvisation, for melody. The very sound of the acoustic guitar induces a greater sensitivity to the moment.

Lagrene is the only musician I've ever spent an afternoon watching cartoons with. In 1980, he had released his first album, Routes to Django, at age 13—one of the most dazzling debuts in jazz. A couple of years later, I convinced a magazine to send me to Salzburg to interview him and see for myself the young man whom Joseph Reinhardt claimed had inherited his brother's right (flat-picking) hand. He was not yet 16, and spoke as much English as I did Sinti (a Gypsy patois), German, or French, languages in which he was fluent. So through an interpreter, he explained that he began playing at four, began teaching himself Django records at eight, and, after learning that the fourth and fifth digits of his master's fretting hand were paralyzed, spent the next three years teaching himself to play Django's runs with two fingers. He was listening to everyone from Charlie Christian to B.B. King to Pat Martino, but stayed away from electric guitar, which he said did not afford him the sound he wanted. And then his favorite cartoon shows came on, the interpreter put a finger to his lips, and that's how we spent the rest of the day.

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