Jazz Improv Magazine: Django Festival at Birdland

By Dan Adler

Django Reinhardt
New York Festival
Live at Birdland
November 10, 2005

PERSONNEL: Dorado Schmitt, lead guitar and violin; Angelo Debarre, electric guitar; Ludovic Beier, accordion and accordina; Pierre Blanchard, violin; Brian Torff, bass; Samson Schmitt, rhythm guitar; Gordon Lane, drums; Lew Tabackin, tenor saxophone; Roger Kellaway, piano; David Langlois, Washboard.

The annual Django Reinhardt Festival at Birdland in NY is now celebrating its sixth consecutive year. Playing to packed houses for an entire week, the all-star cast of French gypsy musicians is joined nightly by some of the great
local American players, and the results are always extremely satisfying.

The evening opened with producer Pat Philips giving some background on the Festival and on the players. Pat and Ettore Stratta are jointly
responsible for putting together this spectacular festival and have now expanded its scope to other major US cities.

The music opened with the great Angelo Debarre playing a solo guitar piece. Angelo, who still lives in a gypsy caravan in France, surprised us all by playing a hand-made electric guitar rather than the more common acoustic guitar associate with Django’s early years. Angelo’s awesome technique, sensitivity and authentic gypsy feel were immediately apparent, and one
of my table-mates described the experience as “visceral.”

The entire program was well thought out, building the excitement slowly by introducing the musicians in various small groupings. After the solo piece, Angelo was joined by American bass player (and the group’s musical director and English announcer) Brian Torff as well as Samson Schmitt (Dorado’s son) on rhythm guitar and Ludovic Beier on accordion. Beier is a phenomenal musical talent who plays in the gypsy tradition and also dabbles in other musical settings.

The second half of the two-hour set featured the second guitar virtuoso on the program, Dorado Schmitt, in a variety of settings. First he played in trio, and then he was joined by violinist Pierre Blanchard, whose playing had traditional Grappelli elements, as well as some traces of Jean Luc Ponty. Their rendition of Django’s classic ballad “Manoir de mes Rêves” was beautiful and very poignant. They followed with a great Dorado Schmitt original samba, which sounded very modern.

The two American guests on the program were Lew Tabackin on tenor saxophone and Roger Kellaway on piano. Tabackin joined the group for several numbers including “What is This Thing Called Love?”—with the entire
group quoting “Hot House,” proving that they are well-versed in bebop as well as swing. Roger Kellaway opened his portion of the program with a long solo-piano introduction to “Honeysuckle Rose” where he brought together
shades of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson blended with his own brand of musical magic.

To top off the set, all performers joined in for two gypsy jazz classics: “Minor Swing” and “Dark Eyes” with a dazzling display of virtuosity and intensity that provided a great climax to the set.The most noticeable aspect of a great gypsy jazz performance such as this is that it seems to appeal to a very wide audience in a powerful way that few other forms of jazz can achieve.

For those who missed this year’s Festival, there is a new CD as well as a DVD of some of the previous year’s performances available online at www.djangobirdland.com.