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Artist Profiles

Django at 100

By Published: January 23, 2010
In addition to the archival recorded material, there will be Django commemorations at a number of local clubs. Joe's Pub is presenting two nights (Jan. 22nd-23rd) with several groups, including Stephane Wrembel, the French-born guitarist who adds a dash of African rhythms to the gypsy jazz mix and who works regularly at Barbès. Joshua Assad is appearing on the same program with the band Babik, a youthful group from Buffalo that's named for Django's son, who died in 2001. He views Wrembel as a significant innovator: "Maybe no one better shows the lack of limitations than Stephane and his Django Experiment. His original compositions are rooted in this style, while they rarely sound even similar to the jazz classics. Instead they're heavily influenced by various world and middle-Eastern rhythms and melodies. Stephane shines when he is able to let loose and allow the music to flow through. A wah-wah peddle and fuzz box are usually not associated with jazz or an acoustic guitar, but his efforts have proven them to be a nice fit."

Another guitarist playing at Joe's Pub is Biel Ballester, who recalls his first experience hearing Reinhardt: "When I was a kid I heard many great jazz guitarists of the past to understand the evolution. One day I arrived at a name: Django Reinhardt. I remember the first tune: 'The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise.' When I heard the second, 'Minor Swing,' I was completely hooked. That guy did with a guitar more than I dreamed of. I wanted to know more about him and how he did all that stuff!" Ballester has heard many changes in the Manouche style—"Wow, yes, many of them, from modern jazz flavors to Jimi Hendrix mixtures. This style if absolutely alive."

He thinks the style's ability to connect with other musics is at its heart: "Django mixed different types of music to create his own style, so I think this is the reason this style of music can be blended with others. It's in its nature. in my case it's an unconscious mix of the music I heard when I was a kid in my homeland, Mallorca, and the styles I've always loved. These go from '50s rockabilly music and its '70s revival to classical guitar music and, of course, jazz. It appears that when I'm composing I am a Mediterranean person more than something else, so when people hear my songs they relate to that easily."

Assad adds, "The band Babik has always tried to push the boundaries and bridge the connections to other styles, such as Klezmer, Flamenco, Classical, and other world music. It's not uncommon for us to quote a random rock song in the middle of a solo, or break out instruments like the ukulele or didgeridoo to find a round- about path to this music." For Assad, change is close to the music's roots. He thinks, "the blending of styles is indicative of the roots of this music. Gypsies have notoriously taken their travels and traditions and interpreted them into song. It is only fitting that the melting pot of styles that has shaped this music over the years continues to evolve and be reinterpreted."

Pat Philips has done more to bring the spirit of Django and Manouche jazz to Manhattan than any other person. She's been producing the Django Reinhardt NY Festival with her partner Ettore Stratta and bassist Brian Torff acting as Musical Director. All of them worked with Stéphane Grappelli for years and are particularly close to the Reinhardt legacy. While Philips presented the 2009 festival in November, she's producing three more days in honor of the centenary at Iridium February 1st-3rd with Dorado Schmitt, one of the greatest torch bearers of the Reinhardt legacy playing a Reinhardt guitar given to the recently passed Les Paul, and his son Samson Schmitt, who's significantly updating the tradition, part of a tour that begins at the Kennedy Center in mid-January.

For Philips, the music is all about its roots and its ability to convey the joy in its creation: "We've been to the gypsy camps in Europe and seen for ourselves. Above all else, there is a joy that they experience in this music, whether in playing it or just being around it. The culture is built around it. They're happy when they're playing their music, it shows, and people enjoy being part of it, experiencing it, and sharing in it. The audience seems to lose themselves for that hour and walk out feeling great, taken away from all their problems for a minute.

"After the festival, so many people write or call and say it was the greatest night of music they've experienced. I also think the musicians have a great attitude. They're 'living life,' enjoying themselves and enjoying their rapport with the audience. The musicians also write new songs that are still melodic, romantic and swinging. It gets to the audience's hearts. You really feel something, sometimes feelings that you haven't felt in a long time, like romance...and also freedom."

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