'Gypsy' State of Mind

Bireli Lagrene Returns to the Source

At that time, I wrote that he was not as comfortable with ballads as supersonic tempos. That still appears to be true. But there were changes in the interim. After he made his American debut in 1984, and was discovered by other guitarists while he in turn discovered fusion and found the electric sound he liked, he seemed unmoored. Teenage years are hard on everyone. Even after he returned to more conventional jazz settings, learning English well enough to sing "The Lady Is a Tramp" without an accent, a portion of his individuality still seemed sacrificed to his teeming virtuosity. Gypsy Project suggests a return to form, a buoyant exercise in recycling classic records through a generational warp. The upshot is he seems most himself, most inspired, when frankly steeped in the Reinhardt legacy.

His selection of tunes is noteworthy. The album has a couple of standards from the early Quintet of the Hot Club, "Limehouse Blues," "Viper's Dream," and two takes of "Daphne," patterned after the 1940 version, with Richard Galliano added on accordion; and several from the war, among them "Blues Claire," "Swing 42," and "Vous et Mai." From the latter period comes the most unlikely number, perhaps the highlight of the album: "Je Suis Seul ce Soir," which Django recorded as the guest of a big band in Brussels, in 1942. The sentimental tune was assigned to the orchestra, which opens with a cornball intro, and the record is salvaged by Reinhardt's jaunty improvisation. Lagrene's interpretation, the only track to exceed five minutes, is a vast improvement, in its deliberate intro, medium-tempo bounce, and affecting Niculescu theme statement, with pointed guitar obbligatos, strummed and picked. Lagrene begins his improvisation with melodic embellishments, sustaining them with poise and feeling, notwithstanding his aggressive attack, impromptu rhythms, flashy harmonics—high semi-articulated ghost notes achieved by lightly picking the string an octave above the stopped note. Even here, as soloist and bolstering accompanist, Lagrene trots where Django strolled, pushing the beat, but effectively and with rare equilibrium. He improves the theme statement of "Belleville," too, replacing its dated, foursquare phrasing with "Nagasaki"-like drive; yet while Lagrene's solo, with its varied accents and strummed turnback, is just fine, a comparison with Django's superb bridge and concluding harmonics helps keep a sense of proportion.

Most selections, however, are from Reinhardt's neglected later years—including the standards "Coquette" and "Embraceable You." On the first, Lagrene retains the bowed bass and basic arrangement of Reinhardt's original, except for a brighter tempo and shorter solos that bring it in at just over two minutes; it's enough—Lagrene's confidence is stunning (he opens with a paraphrase of "Exactly Like You"), as though he can hardly wait to get out of the starting gate. Django's original "Embraceable You" is a benchmark performance, for Grappelli's double-time solo as well as the guitarist's fantastic, logical profusion of ideas, right through to the strange ending, combining a bop lick with a violin cadenza. Still, Lagrene has his own ideas—he delivers a walloping chorus before opting for an abrupt finish.

He goes along with the boppish finish to "Festival 48," and turns the rhythm around in his solo, Django-style, primed for speed, chugging up a sandstorm behind Niculescu, who manages not to get lost in the dust. By contrast, he misses the ominous quality of "Si Tu Savais," playing an exposition that is lovely in itself, but without Reinhardt's lyrical foreboding. Jaw-dropping pyrotechnics, emphasized by brevity, are the order of "Limehouse Blues" (all 110 seconds of it), "What Is This Thing Called Love" (with "Hot House" interpolated), and "Vous et Mai" (with a disarming beginning of swirling harmonics). Still, the most head-shaking is bound to follow the "version longue" (at 2:56), as opposed to the "version courte" (at 2:25), of "Daphne." The extra 30 seconds allow Lagrene and Galliano room to play a chase chorus of four-bar exchanges—the kind of thing you want to hear again immediately. If Lagrene loves life as much as his footloose fingers suggest, you might as well enjoy it with him. Plenty of people can tug at your heart. Inspired the way he is here, Lagrene makes it beat faster.

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