By Elizabeth Ashfold
There was a time, not long ago, when the Django Reinhardt Festival felt disarmingly like a séance. The spirit of that incomparable Gypsy guitarist was summoned, fearlessly and flagrantly, by a pack of his stylistic heirs. Personalities were celebrated but constrained among the gathered faithful, who strove toward an emulative ideal.
That hasn’t all changed, exactly…. But in its eighth annual incarnation at Birdland, the tribute is sounding noticeably less single-minded. On Wednesday night strict homage took a backseat to some looser pursuits, like buoyant rhythm, blinding technique and alert interplay…it made for solid entertainment. Pat Philips and Ettore Stratta, the festival’s producers have cultivated a stable of dynamic Europeans with roots in Gypsy swing. And their labor of love has evolved into a brand. There are DVD and album releases of the festival, which set up shop this week on the heels of a cross-country concert tour.
Dorado Schmitt, a veteran guitarist with the roguish charisma and pencil-thin mustache required of any French Gypsy paragon, was the show’s inexorable star. Emerging in a tuxedo with rhinestone trim, he first played a sentimental new original on violin. Then he switched to his primary instrument for “Coquette,” which served as a feature for the exceptionally gifted violinist Florin Niculescu.
Mr. Schmitt has the springy phrasing and effusive flow of a Djangoloist; he’s clearly born to the style. But he projected a lot of himself too, with some insistence. The set included a few more of his songs, among them “Souvenir,” a showcase for the accordionist Ludovic Beier….Samson Schmitt embroidered one of his father’s best tunes, “Bossa Dorado,” with a breathless torrent of arpeggios…
Given the festival’s exuberant overload of digital dexterity — even Mr. Beier, fingers flying on his button accordion, compounded this feeling….. Howard Levy, appeared near the set’s close. He was meeting the other musicians for the first time, but he plunged right in, with the appropriate dash of brio.