I had the pleasure of getting to see Adrien Moignard, Benoit Convert, and Jeremie Arranger at the Green Mill in Chicago this past Saturday.
First off, if you've never been to the Green Mill, it needs to go on your "things to do before I die" list. Besides having a storied history of infamous clientele (Al Capone) and having a great atmosphere – including the door guy (Big Al, a big biker dude who you wouldn't want to mess with, who lectures/warns you on their strict no talking during the music policy) and really cool, classic decor, plus a hilarious and super nice owner. But the best part is the sound. I have never experienced at any other venue such perfect sound quality. The sound man is meticulous, he never stops working the sound board or walking the room; he's a perfectionist.
As for Adrien, Benoit and Jeremie, they are simply incredible. I have never seen three musicians be so in tune with each other as these three. They operate as one. They listen to each other so well, absolutely the tightest gypsy jazzers I've seen. They also have great stage presence and showmanship; they clearly are having fun and are pretty humorous at times too. Their style and approach is so inventive – without being hokey. Too often in gypsy jazz you see musicians quoting a theme song or something along those lines in an effort to be cute, but often it seems so artificial.
From a technical skill standpoint, speed and insane/creative licks, Adrien is uncanny, and Benoit is not far behind. I would say they’re on par with Bireli and Rosenberg, but in my opinion much more musical. I think the criticism of guys like Bireli and many gypsy guitar players is that it’s often way to technical and fast all the time and not enough feeling and musicianship, but I didn’t feel that way about this trio at all. They have a way of adding dynamics to the standard GJ tunes that really unique and beautiful; the arrangements were wonderful.
I’m a sucker for the ballads, their arrangements and execution of “Nuages” and “Danse Norvegiene” were stunning. Benoit began “Danse” with a beautiful solo piece, which I believe was improvised, that transitioned to the main theme brilliantly. I’m certain that their “Nuages” was the best “Nuages” I’ve heard. It captured the melancholy mood and true meaning of the tune and had me nearly in tears.
Part of the fun with these guys is their seamless transitions from one taking the lead from the other while maintain the rhythm and composure of the song. Both are masterful rhythm players. This is the twist that really makes Adrien and Benoit so special. The intros and endings are so masterfully calculated, but they improvise so well within the structure, always listening and following the leader as they pass the baton. I know that idea is a staple of gypsy jazz, but few really do it this well.
Being an aspiring guitar player myself, it’s too easy to focus on just the guitarists, but Jeremie is more than just a serviceable bassist. He has a wonderful ear for the music. I really enjoyed taking note of him honing in on where either Adrien or Benoit was going with the songs and then following along brilliantly. He also had a fun rapport with the guys – musically. At times Adrien would throw him a curve ball while shooting a smile at him and he would in turn respond. Watching all three of them communicate through looks and their instruments was really great.
So it’s pretty safe to say that this was one the best performances that I’ve ever seen. I think when you take into account the quality of musicianship plus the majestic feel of the venue, it’s a recipe for success. For instance I saw them the next day at Navy Pier and it just wasn’t nearly as good. The sound guy there was a kid who had no idea what he was doing. I’ve seen Alfonso play at dozens of venues, he’s always at his best at the Mill. Same with Kruno and Stephane Wrembel; awesome shows at the Green Mill. But this one is probably the best GJ show I’ve ever seen. It didn’t hurt that I sat in the front row, four feet from the guys.