At Birdland, Djamming for Django
By WILL FRIEDWALD
November 10, 2006
Festival, which is now in the middle of its seventh season at Birdland,
is the bearer of two formidable jazz legacies. The first is that of its
namesake, the remarkable gypsy who is widely acknowledged as the first
important European jazzman and also, to my taste at least, the greatest
of all guitarists. The second is that of the late impresario Norman
who re-invented the jam session, which previously had been a
semi-private kind of performance for musicians and their friends before
becoming a spectacle designed to fill concert halls and even stadiums.
Like Granz's "Jazz at the Philharmonic" concerts, the DjangoFest,
produced by Pat Phillips and Ettore Strata, has become an ongoing,
globetrotting franchise that makes two annual appearances in Manhattan
(in the summer at Alice
and November at Birdland). Like jam sessions, JATP and otherwise, the
Django events are reliant less on pre-set compositions and ensemble
playing than long solos with a rotating cast of stars working with a
core rhythm section. And, also like JATP, while they are mostly
tasteful and delightfully spontaneous, there are also moments that are
predictable and exhibitionistic.
This year, unusually, there is only one star guitarist, the
(who doubles on violin and triples as vocalist), whose son, Samson
Schmitt, plays rhythm guitar. The remaining regulars appearing every
night are the violinist Alexandre
Cavaliere, the accordionist Ludovic
Beier, and the bassist and musical director Brian
(the only American in the group). They mix it up in various
combinations, and only the younger Schmitt was on stage for the whole
90 minute set on Tuesday night.
The opening set that night began thoughtfully with an
accordion-guitar duo by Schmitt Jr. and Mr. Beier, opening with Chick
— a pair of European jazzmen interpreting an American jazz standard
reflecting on Old Europe.
When the twosome essayed a slow ballad, Mr. Beier, playing organstyle
chords, showed that his major influence as a musician is more the soul
jazz of Jimmy
Smith than polka king Frankie Yankovic.
Next, the group reformed into a trio with both Schmitts and Mr.
Torff to play the standard "I'll See You In My Dreams" (recorded by
Reinhardt in 1939), and we heard, for the first time, the familiar
up-and-down pomp rhythm associated with Reinhardt's most famous
ensemble, the Quintette of the Hot Club of France.
With the addition of Mr. Cavaliere (who, at 21, looks young enough to
play at his own bar mitzvah) and Mr. Beier, the group had now reached
Quintette size, and essayed Charlie
"El Fuego" — a second example (following " Spain") of a contemporary
American jazzman contemplating Spanish music. Here, Mr. Beier soloed
effectively on the accordina, a wind-blown device resembling the mutant
offspring of a concertina and a harmonica.
At this point, the full contingent of regulars was joined by special
a trumpet prodigy who is so young that, not surprisingly, the first
piece of information in his official bio is his age (20). His youth not
withstanding, Mr. Farinacci perfectly nailed the swing idiom and stayed
completely in character. When his horn was added to the quintet on "All
of Me," the overall sound easily recalled Reinhardt's meetings with
American swing trumpeters like Rex Stewart and Bill
The trumpeter was also convincing on "Tears," one of Reinhardt's
loveliest ballads, with a minor key melody and an outstanding bridge.
The rest of the opening set included several compositions by Mr.
Schmitt Sr., namely "Sinti Rhapsody," a cutthroat competition between
the two dueling fiddlers, the composer, and Mr. Cavaliere, in which the
idea seemed not to be to play more inventively, but simply to play
faster — as if the loser had to pay the check. More graceful was "Bossa
Dorado," which seems inspired by Reinhardt's version of "Brazil."
In between the two, Mr. Schmitt sang a French chanson. The first set
climaxed familiarly with Reinhardt's most dependable jam-session
vehicle, "Minor Swing," leading, as it usually does, into the
traditional Russian-gypsy air, "Dark Eyes." "Minor Swing" has become
fairly established as the climactic tune of the DjangoFest, and each
year they seem to play it faster; on Tuesday it exceeded what Mel
Brooks (in "Spaceballs") would call "ludicrous speed": beyond 16th
and 32nd notes into 64th notes and whatever comes after that.
The DjangoFest is as much a visual event as a musical one; if you
can't come to Birdland, I recommend picking up one of the DVDs that the
producers are selling of the 2004 and '05 events. (The highlight of
last year's fest, coincidentally, is the clarinetist Ken Peplowski, who
is also the guest star tonight.)
The Reinhardt Festival, though it hasn't exactly become a formula,
still has room for experimentation; I still would like to see these
Djangologists specifically replicate the classic Quintette of the Hot
Club of France, with solo guitar and violin, two rhythm guitars, and
bass. Even more so, particularly in a concert setting, one yearns to
see the festival tackle more of Reinhardt's compositions — he was
extremely proud of his accomplishments as a composer, and rightfully so
— particularly his longer works for big bands and full orchestras. The
DjangoFest has long since succeeded in capturing the essence of
Django's style and spirit, now the element it needs is a sense of
ambition worthy of its inspiration.