Reinhardt reverberates in guitar program

By Don Heckman
Special to The Times

November 19, 2005

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Art of the Guitar Festival this week has been showcasing the remarkable versatility of this seemingly uncomplicated instrument. And that is without exploring any of the sound-stretching offerings of the Jimi Hendrix-Eric Clapton-Jimmy Page era.

But even excluding the thicket of amplification, feedback and beyond, there’s still plenty of guitar territory to cover. In Wednesday night’s Disney Hall concert by Dorado Schmitt’s sextet, the spotlight focused on a unique time and place in the instrument’s history in a program devoted to the memory of the great French Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.

One of the only (if not the only) European jazz artists to rise to the level of influential innovator, Reinhardt, in his relatively brief career (he died at 43 in 1953), produced a collection of hard swinging, emotionally buoyant recordings. Working frequently with violinist Stephane Grappelli in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, he incorporated the passion of his Gypsy heritage with the musical adventurousness of jazz improvisation.

Guitarist Schmitt is one of several contemporary European artists carrying the Reinhardt standard forward. And the program’s opening numbers, especially a highly charged romp through “I’ll See You in My Dreams” — in which he was accompanied by his son, Samson Schmitt, on rhythm guitar and Brian Torff on bass — bristled with the upbeat, joyous approach to jazz that is at the core of the Reinhardt style. Here, as elsewhere throughout the program, the elder Schmitt’s virtuosity was on full display via lightning-fast finger work, powerful strumming, wild sweeps across the fingerboard and astonishingly fast tempos.

It was the three principal non-guitarists in the group — violinist Pierre Blanchard, accordionist Ludovic Beier and alto saxophonist Tom Scott — who moved the evening beyond the sincere tribute much of Schmitt’s program represented.

Blanchard and Beier, in particular, playing instruments usually operating on the fringes of jazz, transcended with invenntiveness.