MY JAZZ.COM ARTICLE OF THE 2008 BIRDLAND DJANGO FEST

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November 17, 2008 ·

The Spirit of Django Haunts Birdland

Samson and Jean Baptiste Schmidt, Birdand, New York City2008


Bill Barnes is jazz.com’s resident expert on Gypsy jazz. Regular readers may recall his intriguing three-part article here on life at a Gypsy jazz camp. Now he turns his attention to the ninth annual Django Reinhardt festival, that one time each year when a little bit of jazz Manouche comes to New York. T.G.


It’s been said that, in New York clubs and bars, there really are no strangers and Birdland is no exception. I find myself sitting at a table with one such ‘un-stranger,’ a nice, if somewhat eccentric lady ‘of a certain age,’ as they say, with whom I am engaged in lively conversation before the first set. Despite the awe inspired by the history of all the great players and singers who have graced Birdland’s stage over the decades, this is still the friendliest, classiest and most comfortable jazz room in New York—due in no small part to owner John Valenti’s constant and tireless personal attention.

It’s the first week of November and, once again, this hallowed temple of jazz reverberates with the siren song of the Gypsy caravan as the ninth annual Django Reinhardt NY Festival returns. This year producers Pat Philips and Ettore Stratta have assembled a stellar international roster representing the latest generation of Django-inspired musicians they have dubbed the “Young Lions of Gypsy Jazz.”

My newfound friend turns out to be the only person in the room who isn’t aware of tonight’s program and our lively conversation has become a detailed interrogation as she asks “why Gypsy jazz? What do Gypsies have to do with it?” I try to give her a thumbnail sketch of the history of jazz Manouche, but she isn’t letting me off the hook. “Who was Django Reinhardt?” she asks. I have her write down the name of Michael Dregni’s comprehensive Django biography, along with a list of material and CDs which could help bring her up to speed. “Why do you spell his name with a D?” Mercifully, the first set begins, perhaps saving me from the inevitable water-boarding.

“What do Gypsies have to do with it? Who is Django Reinhardt?” she asks. “Why do you spell his name with a D?”

Producer Pat Philips introduces the program with a comment on the election. “I feel that this is a very special night because tonight, we can celebrate America.” It is the day after the historic Obama landslide and the crowd roars in approval. But, of course, we have come for the music—the audience is crackling in anticipation as bassist Brian Torff, the festival’s musical director, takes the stage, followed by Philadelphia’s top hot swing guitarist Kruno Spisic and Andreas Öberg, Sweden’s rising jazz guitar star.

The trio opens the set with a moderate swing, “Coquette,” both guitarists displaying their extensive command of Djangoese while getting a feel for the sound of the room. Kruno’s playing is firmly anchored in the disciplined Gypsy style, while Andreas is more eclectic in his approach, integrating elements of straight-ahead bebop with Django-rooted phrasing. The contrasting solo styles actually work well together.

“Coquette” is followed by a languid ballad based on a Grieg melody, “Danse Norvégienne.” Öberg’s solo intro is an elaborate display of arpeggios incorporating a few well-placed false harmonics, a technique perfected by the late Lenny Breau, but mastered by few guitarists since. I have followed the career of this remarkable young jazzman for several years; in fact, his playing was the catalyst which sparked my initial interest in the Hot Club Swing revival. If anything, tonight’s performance has increased my respect.

French accordion virtuoso Ludovic Beier now joins the onstage trio for an electrifying rendition of “Bernie’s Tune,” demonstrating the power of an instrument which, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, is still not taken seriously by many in the U.S. jazz community. His fingers dance across the changes in rapid-fire triplets. Kruno takes his chorus with the crispness and energy that has helped forge a reputation as one of the top jazz Manouche guitar players in North America. Andreas follows suit, scatting along with his solo (à la Benson) before the quartet trades fours in a whirlwind of ideas that seem to connect each others’ thoughts.

But wait—there’s more…harmonica master Howard Levy! Simply put, Levy is a shock. I’m not normally prone to exaggeration, but what this cat does with an ordinary diatonic harmonica may be beyond the science of modern physics. A veteran of the Bela Fleck ensemble, as well as years of session work on both sides of the Atlantic, Levy is considered by many as the most advanced harmonica player in the world. Tonight his version of Django’s celebrated anthem of occupied France, “Nuages,” brings down the house.

Up to this point, all the players on stage have been Gadje, or non-Gypsies. With the introduction of Samson Schmitt and his younger brother Jean Baptiste, we are about to hear the real Magilla. Sons of the legendary Sinti guitarist, Dorado Schmitt, they provide the only element so far missing from the night’s display of virtuosity—the heart and soul of the Romani musician. Sampson galvanizes the crowd with a full-throttle, authoritative version of Django’s swing classic, “Daphne.” His eighteen year old brother Jean Baptiste leads the other guitarists pumping out a powerful la pompe rhythm.

Brian introduces the extraordinary French violinist Timbo Merstein, who frequently plays and records with Sampson. Suddenly the group is transformed into the quintessential Hot Club lineup as the fingers fly into a furious, blistering arrangement of the perennial swing favorite, “Stompin’ at Decca.” Stephane Grappelli’s influence is obvious in his quotes and phrases.

Another surprise: Ludovic brings out an odd-looking free reed wind instrument from France, the accordina, which appears to be the unintended result of a clandestine tryst between a harmonica and a button accordion. It has been making somewhat of a comeback in recent years due to its potential for subtle expression, as Ludovic admirably demonstrates in the poignant ballad “Souvenirs,” played in a duet with Sampson Schmitt. With the solid backing of Toriff’s bass, the intimate exchange between Sampson and Ludovic is intuitive and delicate. In the middle of his solo, Ludovic suddenly leaves the stage and walks through the audience, wielding the accordina like a Jaipur snake charmer. Freed of the microphone, the notes waft through the air as if they were part of a film noir soundtrack, transporting the mesmerized audience back in time to a 1930s Parisian café.

After a spirited “Lady Be Good” the whole ensemble caps off the set with a bouncing, up-tempo “Minor Swing,” perhaps the most ubiquitous number in the Django archives. As the first set audience leaves the room, you can still feel the energy from the steady pompe rhythm. I say farewell to my inquisitive new friend, who is now clearly becoming a fan of Gypsy jazz.

This is the end of part one of Bill Barnes’s two-part report on the Django Reinhardt jazz festival. Click here for part two, in which Bill takes us behind the scenes.

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DUO MOSÏK // Dec 16, 2008 at 07:32 PM

  • Will there be a video or cd of this? I’d love to hear Howard Levy’s interpretation of Nuages. I’ve seen him live a couple of times here in Germany and I can say without any doubt that he is the greatest harmonica player ever and a great musician, too.
  • 3 Lionel Winston // Dec 28, 2008 at 05:03 PM
    I played guitar years ago. I would go to the music shops near UC Berkely campus. There, I discovered Django’s style. I found it wonderful then. Today I still feel the same way. Thanks for re-awkening the experience. Lionel

Backstage at the Django Reinhardt Festival

Andreas Oberg


In part one of this article, Bill Barnes reviewed the ninth annual Django Reinhardt jazz festival at Birdland. In this second, and final installment, he takes us behind the scenes for conversations with the performers and Gypsy jazz advocate Pat Philips. T.G.


Offstage at the Django Reinhardt NY Festival, guitarist Andreas Öberg allows me to noodle a bit on his $30,000 Benedetto archtop. His recent release on Resonance Records, My Favorite Guitars, has him squarely back in the mainstream, where his formidable bebop chops are in full swing. For much of tonight’s sets he opted to play the archtop, rather than his more traditional Selmer-style AJL acoustic. As the author of Gypsy Fire, one of the best instructional materials on Django guitar, he is a dedicated advocate of the Gypsy technique, but lately has been increasingly drawn back to his earlier influences, mainstream players such as George Benson and Pat Martino.

Öberg admits that he isn’t doing as many Hot Club swing gigs as he was a few years ago. Still, he remains a proponent. “There’s real power in the Gypsy technique,” he says. “You can play so much faster, with greater clarity.” He will be expanding access to his experience and knowledge in the near future with an interactive instructional website, in partnership with AOL. For now, I’m content to observe and attempt to steal bits and pieces of his remarkable technique.

While hanging out in Birdland’s green room between sets, I had the opportunity to sample the Selmer-style guitars the Schmitt brothers have been playing, courtesy of Manouche Guitars North America’s representative, Barry Warhoftig. These are just stock production models but, in Sampson’s hands, they sound like vintage Selmers. Everybody is plucking away backstage—it’s interesting to hear the different approaches to the guitar during the interplay between Kruno, Sampson and Andreas. Kruno suddenly breaks into song, demonstrating a surprisingly good voice, as he renders a lovely, poignant ballad in his native Croatian. I recognize the tune, “Letch Gurgo,” written by violinist Schnuckenack Reinhardt, a cousin of Django. Ludovic joins in with the accordion, followed by Sampson, providing the perfect guitar embellishment. This wasn’t on the program, but I’m thinking it should have been.

Producer Pat Philips and her long time partner, Ettore Stratta are by the bar, waiting for the second set. Arguably New York’s most ardent supporters of Gypsy jazz, they had actually built their reputations working with a broad array of major talent (a very long list, trust me!) from Lena Horne and Count Basie to Lew Tabackin and Joshua Redman. Ettore has produced, arranged and conducted for so many prominent artists, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Tony Bennett and Eddie Daniels. So what has made them so passionate about Django Reinhardt and jazz Manouche? Pat responds, “It makes me feel good. I just fell in love with the music and with the artists.”

“Half of the people we bring here live in caravans or cottages. They could afford to buy big houses but they don’t think that way—it’s all about the music, it’s all about the family.”

Pat Philips

I ask for her take on why there is such a resurgence of interest now, after all these years. “It’s the hippest music out there, at least in my opinion. . . . I don’t think there’s any comparison. It’s very romantic, melodic, very swinging; it gets inside you and makes you feel great—and I’m talking kids, all the way to old people. I just think it’s hip and cutting edge forever.”

They have been involved in the jazz Manouche revival ever since 1988, when they produced Stephane Grappelli’s 70th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Michel Legrand, the Juilliard String Quartet, Maureen McGovern and Toots Thielemans. Since then, they have produced regular Django-inspired events at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Birdland and other venues, getting to know many of the key players in the process—Dorado Schmitt, Angelo Debarre and Stochelo Rosenberg, to name a few.

Pat Philips loves the Romani musician’s esthetic. “Half of the people we bring here live in caravans or cottages. They could afford to buy big houses but they don’t think that way—it’s all about the music, it’s all about the family. They grow up with the music—they play for the joy of the music. That is the difference. That’s why you feel it. You feel what they feel. If they were home tonight, they’d be sitting in the living room playing music. When they get up after breakfast, they’re going to play music.” The search for the heart and soul of Gypsy jazz has led her to Romani camps across Europe. “We’ve gone there, we’ve been in their caravans, it’s all guitars, putting them in the hands of a three year-old. . . . It’s in the culture; it’s in the family.”

While the second set audience is not quite the overflowing capacity crowd of the first, they’re every bit as enthusiastic. Among the repeats of the first set’s tunes, the group offers some more classic Django numbers: “Troublant Boléro,” which is actually more of a rumba, and the popular “Swing Gitan.” The performance ends with an exuberant, buoyant crowd pleaser, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

That’s pretty much summed up the feeling when, at three o’clock in the morning, Birdland finally closed its doors behind the last of the stragglers and turned us out into the misty November night—we couldn’t feel anything but love. Latcho Drom and long live Django!

Bill Barnes

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