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Artist Profiles

Django at 100

By Published: January 23, 2010
Marks of Reinhardt's legacy are numerous. The Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis composed an elegy at once limpid and resilient, "Django," to mark his passing in 1953 and it's been rendered superbly by guitarists as unalike as Grant Green and Jim Hall. Tony Bennett wrote lyrics for Reinhardt's Debussy-like ballad "Nuages" while Woody Allen clearly has a special fondness, evident in Sweet and Lowdown, dedicated to the misadventures and aspirations of fictional Swing-Era guitarist Emmet Ray, played by Sean Penn. Paul Brady, a Detroit guitarist, remarks, "That film was a huge contributor to the Django resurgence. The music from that film, and Howard Alden's playing in it, has been a huge influence on the Hot Club of Detroit." A full-length biography of Reinhardt, Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend (Oxford), by Michael Dregni appeared in 2004, presenting Reinhardt's life and mythology with a clarity and detail previously lacking.

Reinhardt's importance can be gauged by his presence in the CD bins. While Django recordings will always tumble over one another, mixing and matching sessions and periods with dubious sound, there are several exceptional efforts to provide thoroughness with excellent sound and documentation. The English company JSP in tandem with the brilliant BBC engineer Ted Kendall began working through the Reinhardt legacy in 1992. Their major efforts recently came to a kind of completion with the release of their fifth multi-CD box, Postwar Recordings 1944-1953, which documents Reinhardt adapting to an electric guitar and embracing the possibilities of bop.

Each JSP box has included four or five CDs for a total of 23 CDs covering Reinhardt's work from the formation of the Hot Club of France in 1934 to his death in 1953, including four CDs of Django in Rome 1949-50 and a five-CD set of Django on the Radio. While newcomers to Reinhardt might blanch at the thought of multi-CD sets, the JSP boxes are bargains as well. You might want to start at the beginning with The Classic Early Recordings in Chronological Order, chronicling the Hot Club, Reinhardt in solo and duet with Grappelli and with such visiting American stars as Coleman Hawkins. These are the recordings that initially set the style of the Hot Club and the essential pre-war legacy of Reinhardt and Grappelli, demonstrating that you could play hot jazz with a string band.

The French have also offered varying interpretations of the legacy, including several volumes in the Jazz Classics series, but none are apt to compete with Intégrale Django Reinhardt produced by Fremeaux & Associes and carrying the notion of completeness to spectacular lengths. First released in two-CD sets, the Frémeaux chronology ran to 20 of the dual jewel boxes. During the centenary year, the company is issuing the Django recordings in three "Saisons." Saison 1, covering 1928-1938, runs to 14 discs and the first three actually precede anything included by JSP, documenting Reinhardt the banjoist in recordings with French musette groups before the catastrophic caravan fire and before he heard Louis Armstrong. It's a trip deep into the origins of the Django legacy. Two similarly massive sets documenting his later career will appear as well.

There's bound to be debate as to the dominant contemporary Djangoloist, but the principal contenders all spring from the Manouche tradition in which Reinhardt has the status of a musical deity. There's Bireli Lagrene, the prodigy who first recorded at age 13 in 1980 and who has passed through electric phases to mature into a masterful musician in the gypsy idiom. The Rosenberg trio, with lead guitarist Stochelo Rosenberg, are superb interpreters of the tradition, as are the Schmitt cousins, most notably Tchavolo and Dorado.

Capturing the flavour of current Gypsy jazz perfectly is a DVD from the Django Reinhardt NY Festival Live at Birdland 2004. It features a quartet led by Dorado Schmitt with sparkling support from rhythm guitarist Mayo Hubert, pianist Peter Bees and Brian Torff. The group is joined by special guest, including James Carter and drummer Winard Harper, demonstrating how readily the best of the Djangologists can meld with mainstream modern jazz.

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