Of all the things guitarist Django Reinhardt accomplished in his 43 years on earth, two stand out: He proved you don't have to have a big band in order to swing, and you don't have to play soft and slow in order to be intimate. Reinhardt's Le Hot Club Quintet of France (formed with violinist Stephane Grappelli, who David Grisman has called "the master of String Swing") embodied those two proofs, fueled by Reinhardt's evocative playing and prolific writing. 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, and guitarist Frank Vignola's 100 Years of Django is a perfect present for all lovers of the great Gypsy guitarist.
In an age of 71-disc box sets, a homage containing only 10 songs seems a bit miserly, particularly when Reinhardt recorded nearly 100 songs during his career. But Vignola wasn't trying to complete a point-by-point tour of Reinhardt's songbook. Instead, he concentrates on the detail and intimacy inherent in all Reinhardt compositions and he does it without making an oft-repeated mistaketrying to "re- create" Le Hot Club, which is kind of like trying to reinvent a wheel made in France during World War II.
Forget the stereotypical image of musicians playing in some smoky basement grotto in Paris. The opener "Rhythm Futur" is two guys sitting around a kitchen table, seeing what they can do with one tune and the tools they have. What accordionist Julien Labro does is fly, launching a solo that simply bubbles with joy. He even throws in a sub-reference to "Hava Nagila," which appropriately translates to "Let us rejoice!" The piece pushes effortlessly forward, despite the lack of bass or drums: Vignola sets the pace with his forceful strumming, and then Labro maintains the foundation as Vignola takes a sweet, soft, soaring solo that simultaneously works on a macro and micro levels. A rhythm section (of a kind) does show up, as guitarist Vinny Rainolo and bassist Gary Mazzaroppi appear on the following cut. But "Troubland Bolero" is a trio, as Labro lays out and cedes the spotlight to Vignola, while Rainolo's rhythm guitar gives Vignola freedom to go all-out, here and elsewhere.
Vignola alternates between trio and quartet for the rest of the recording, varying the heat of the disc's slow-burning fire. "Swing Gitane" is as cool as a spring night in the Berkshires thanks to Labro getting his Parisian on, and the user- friendly take on "Diminishing Blackness" is light years removed from saxophonist James Carter's frantic reboot on Heaven on Earth (Half Note, 2009). Vignola gives "Tears" and "Nuages" the balladic treatment they deserve, taking both pieces to the edge of exquisite sadness. In contrast, "Douce Ambiance" is more make- out music than love song, and "Mystery Pacific" is literally an express train whistling through the night.
100 Years of Django is Frank Vignola's suitably small birthday present to one of the greatest guitarists ever. Size? It don't mean a thing... as long as it swings!