Bireli Lagrene's Gypsy Project, Pizza Express Jazz Club, London

Back to the days of Django

By Sholto Byrnes
Sunday 01 December 2013 04:52
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The days when the mouldie fygges did battle with the modernists are long gone. The fygges lost, and trad jazz has been consigned to the musical dustbin, or at least to the Real Ale pub, which is much the same thing. But somehow the jazz of Le Hot Club de France, which dates from the same pre-war era as trad, managed to remain a non-combatant in these battles. Perhaps because the music made by Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt was so different, it has never been looked down on as the Dixieland revivalists with their boaters and bow-ties are. It all goes back to Grappelli and Reinhardt. There have been other violinists, and plenty of guitarists, but Grappelli and Reinhardt are the gods of this style. Anyone else playing this music is always an imitator; comparisons are always made with the deities; and the mortals are always found wanting.

Having said that, Bireli Lagrene has a good shot at it. The guitarist is from a gypsy family, like Reinhardt. This is the style he grew up with, and after flirtations with fusion, he has returned to it. Flanked by two other guitarists, Hono Winterstein and Thomas Dutronc, and supported by Antonio Licusati on double bass, Lagrene shared the melodic and soloing honours with Florin Niculescu on violin. His playing is sensational. The friend who accompanied me, a violinist who has trembled under Solti's baton, gave Niculescu full marks for bowing, intonation and use of harmonics, and was astonished by the fluency of his technique. Unafraid of soupy, dramatic romanticism, Niculescu dipped his full tone into a vat of vibrato, whooped down glissandi slides, and shook himself dry with double-stop plucking.

Lagrene has a similarly masterful command of the technical aspects of his instrument. The fast runs up and down the guitar don't come across as forcefully on acoustic guitar as on the electric, there being no sustain and effects pedals to extend the moment. And Lagrene's gypsy guitar is particularly physical, emphasising the production of each note.

This is the music of flappers, of steam liners, assignations in cabins and cocktails frosty with 6pm condensation. The chug-chug of three guitars strumming a straight four in the bar anchors it firmly in its era, as does the two time feel on the bass. Lagrene doesn't attempt to update the style at all, as John Etheridge does with his similar group, so Lagrene's quintet forms a tableau in the museum of jazz. How much of this you want to hear depends on how often you like visiting museums; but we all agree you should go at least occasionally.

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