'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.

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.

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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