Django in June: Young Lions of Gypsy Jazz

Wall Street Journal

Birdland, June 2011
315 W. 44th St.,
(212) 581-3080

Independence Day doubtless puts all of us in mind of France, America’s ally from the Revolutionary War onward; surely it’s no coincidence that the French were the first to produce a great jazz musician on the level as the American innovators with the amazing gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-53). This summer’s Django Fest lacks a central star, but I’ve never heard the collective—with bassist and musical director Brian Torff and Samson Schmitt as the guitar glue that holds it together—play harder or more like a real band. The line-up of guest stars is particularly strong, with Colombian harp virtuoso Edmar Castaneda (Friday and Saturday) and Brazilian trumpet headliner Claudio Roditi (Sunday). Mr. Castaneda especially fits the profile of a DjangoFest guest because he with remarkable speed and skill, and because he’s best experienced visually as well as aurally.

The Django Reinhardt Festival, which for the first time is being presented in a special Summer edition, is a different kind of musical event. It has about as much in common with a conventional night-club experience as a tight-rope walker does with a ballerina, or Coney Island does with Carnegie Hall. There’s a more visceral thrill to it, and a hard competitive edge. DjangoFest is the NASCAR of jazz: You feel like you should root for your favorite player, and even make a side bet.

The late set on opening night started with the core trio—Mr. Torff, Mr. Schmitt (making a rare appearance without his father, Dorado Schmitt), and the Manouche rhythm guitarist Doudou Cuillerier. They were quickly joined by a third guitarist, the Swiss Andreas Oberg, for Richard Rodgers’s “This Can’t Be Love.” (Like Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me,” heard slightly later, it was precisely the kind of American standard that Django would have played with his famous Quintette, although he never actually did.) The three guitarists played in the Quintette’s trademark “pumping” rhythm, a unique groove that suggests 2/4 and 4/4 at the same time, especially clear on Reinhardt’s driving, “Djam” session classic, “Douce Ambiance.”

Accordionist Ludovic Beier, another regular headliner of the series, made his entrance playing the most beautiful of Reinhardt’s ballads, “Manoir De Mes Rêves.” In Reinhardt’s generation, Gypsies who lived in France didn’t generally regard themselves as Frenchmen or even Europeans, but “Manoir” (aka “Castle of My Dreams”) shows that Reinhardt was a close cousin of Ravel and Debussy. The gifted Mr. Beier extracted all of its impressionistic beauty via the “accordina,” a mouth-blown device that looks like the love child of a concertina and a giant tootsie roll. “Manoir” was one of very few tranquil pieces in an otherwise high-energy, boxing match of a set.

The evening’s guest star, tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, joined the group for Mr. Beier’s “Brazilian Fingers.” He played with an aggressive tone, like a Sonny Rollins calypso, but never completely stole the spotlight, instead blending in with the unusual ensemble and an equally individual tune, which felt like a Cuban samba, a Rio choro, and a klezmer bulger all at once.

Things calmed down momentarily with a surprisingly tender moment—Mr. Cuillerier singing an authentic Gypsy love song, Tuti Echi,” in the Manouche language, before the entire ensemble revved back into high gear with an ecstatic “Orchitchonia.” By now, Gypsies and Russians in the house were on their feet and cheering, and it seemed more than ever like a musical World Cup. My money’s on the Frenchmen.