copyright © 2003 Mike Zwerin
Paris: In hindsight, it was inevitable. Sooner or later, Bireli Lagrene was bound to accept his Romany roots. For a time he was known for the trouble he took to escape the influence of his fellow Gypsy Django Reinhardt.
Two years ago, when Lagrene started his Gipsy Project, he never thought it would still be alive by now. It was suppose to be one album in and out. His update of what is known as Gypsy Swing turned out to appeal to more than one culture and to several generations. Ethnic and folk music people are attracted to it -- good-old-days people.
Their two albums have sold in the mid-five figures each and counting, big numbers for jazz. A live album is in the works. Helping to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Django's death (May 16), Gipsy Project is booked from Portugal to Turkey through the end of the year. In March they tour the US for the first time, including a week in New York's up-market Blue Note club.
The 36-year-old Lagrene lives with his wife and two children in Strasbourg, Alsace, France. He was born in the nearby village of Soufflenheim. His father Fiso had been a well-known guitarist. The Lagrenes were the only Romany in the town and they lived in a house not a caravan. Five-year-old Bireli already had his own guitar and he recorded his first album, Routes to Django, at the age of 14. Before 20, he was playing with the likes of John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Paco de Lucia, Benny Carter, Larry Coryell, Stephane Grappelli and Paquito D'Rivera.
He was offered a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston when he was still too young to go abroad alone. He never did learn to read music. Now he shrugs it off: "Like a blind person might have a more developed sense of smell, somebody who can't read music might perceive it with more intensity. It's good for ear training. I've gotten to be very good at memorizing."
Having spent a lot of years memorizing Django's solos, somewhere along the way Lagrene got tired of all the "wonder child" and "purity" stuff. He listened to Jimi Hendrix and to jazz-rock fusion, the music of his own generation. He played with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, toured Europe with Jaco Pastorius, led an electric band including the drummer Dennis Chambers that got itself banned from the Village Vanguard for excess volume.
Even when speaking his hipster English, Lagrene is first and foremost a Gypsy. Not so much his physical appearance, though that too. It's more a kind of removal. An independent spirit -- shy but confident, equal but separate. A race apart. Asked if he considered himself French (he went to French schools and his father was born in France), he had to hesitate before replying: "Yes, sure." Such is the alienation of the Romany people that he speaks French with his Romanian violinist Florin Niculescu because their respective Gypsy dialects have grown too far apart. Based on the "pompe" -- two or three acoustic guitars strumming every pulse on top of the beat with no drums -- Gypsy swing is folk music, not unlike the blues. It will not go out of style. Although there are many blue notes, it is the only major jazz tradition not to grow out of the blues. (Stephane Grappelli once said that he and Django with the Quintet of the Hot Club of France were "the first rock band. Nobody used three guitars before us.") Since it is also not American, Gypsy swing tends to be overlooked. Except for in Woody Allen movies, you rarely get to hear Django any more. Until, hopefully, now. Are we in for a revival? [There has been an acclaimed Django-oriented guitar festival at Birdland in NYC for two years running -- ed.]
Lagrene's virtuosity is sparkling, his imagination exuberant. His nuanced take on Gypsy swing has a unique combination of tradition and creativity. More than just good, his playing is in the zone these days. He detunes a string a la Bill Frisell, explores sophisticated altered chords, his groove is loose. He did not grow up listening to bebop and you hear little evidence of it. The idea, he said, is "to continue the tradition but express it in a different way. I hope the people are aware that I am not trying to recreate Django. I don't play his licks. It's all there of course. I play around it."
The quintet does not rehearse much, except "once in a while in hotel rooms." Standards like "Djangology" and "Minor Swing" are in the repertoire but, like the Mingus Big Band, Gipsy Project prefers to concentrate on the lesser-known material ("Place de Broukere") within its tradition. "I'd like to stick to this style as long as I can," Lagrene said. "See how far it can go."
Mike Zwerin originally wrote this piece for the International Herald Tribune.
C o m m e n t s
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