Electric Gypsy
Biréli Lagrène
32 GLOBAL RHYTHM august/september_07
STORY David R. Adler
PHOTO Philippe Etheldrede
It seems inadequate to describe jazz guitarist Biréli Lagrène as a virtuoso. He eats other
virtuosi for breakfast. But that’s not the only
thing setting him apart—he’s been releasing
solidly impressive records since he was 13.
Born in 1966 to a Sinti gypsy family in
the Alsace region of France, Lagrène took
up guitar at age four. He soon became enthralled by the music of legendary guitarist
Django Reinhardt, father of the idiom known
as “gypsy jazz.”
“Many gypsies loved the way Django
played,” says Lagrène, from his present-day
home in Strasbourg, France.
Through innate ability and tireless effort, the boy became a convincing Django
imitator, and thus a startlingly precocious
student of jazz harmony and rhythm. Word
spread across the pond with the release of
Lagrène’s 1980 debut, Routes To Django.
Jazz critic Gary Giddins traveled to Salzburg
to interview the young wizard, who had not
only mastered classics like “My Melancholy
Baby,” but also written sophisticated tunes
of his own. Giddins recalled Lagrène as “the
only musician I’ve ever spent an afternoon
watching cartoons with.”
Fast-forward to today. Lagrène, his playing aged like fine wine, is enjoying a career
as one of jazz’s most distinguished, and
frightening, plectrists. “I used to practice a
lot when I was a teenager,” he recalls. “I don’t
really nowadays, although I do try to play
every day.” Not a problem, one imagines,
given his busy touring and recording schedule. This year alone sees the release of three
CDs, all on the Dreyfus label: To Bi Or Not To
Bi, a live collection of Lagrène’s jaw-dropping
solos; Djangology, a polished outing with the
WDR Big Band of Köln; and It’s All Right With
Me, a punchy small-group collaboration with
jazz singer Sara Lazarus. “She doesn’t overdo things, she really stays with the melody,”
says Lagrène of the vocalist. “It’s really great
to hear someone like that today.”
If he seems picky about singers, it’s because he is one: on Djangology, he croons
“The Shadow Of Your Smile” and “The Good
Life,” beautifully, in unaccented English. “I’m
very much influenced by people from the
’40s and ’50s like Sinatra and Tony Bennett,”
he explains. “It stuck with me since I was a
child, and even more now that I’m getting
“The Good Life” (listed as “La Belle Vie”) appears on Lagrène’s solo
disc as well, and for a poignant reason: “The composer, Sacha Distel,
was a good friend of mine. He was a French cat, a singer and guitar
player too. He passed away in 2004, so it’s like I’m singing to him.”
Lagrène has arrived at a fertile juncture, but by a circuitous route.
He floored a capacity crowd at Carnegie Hall at age 18, appearing
with Reinhardt’s chief musical partner, famed jazz violinist Stephane
Grappelli. (This writer was in attendance.) But Lagrène had interests
beyond gypsy jazz. He loved Hendrix. He loved the electric bass
revolutionary Jaco Pastorius, with whom he appeared on the album
Stuttgart Aria. Turning to jazz fusion, Lagrène signed with Blue Note
Records in 1987 and issued the albums Inferno and Foreign Affairs,
which weren’t particularly well-received. Still, he had reached the next
level—no longer a novelty kid, a niche interpreter of a bygone style,
Lagrène had entered an arena populated by modern guitar heroes
like Larry Coryell and Al Di Meola. (His 1990 collaboration with the two
is available on DVD as Super Guitar Trio And Friends.)
A few years on, Lagrène signed with the French label Dreyfus.
The ’90s found him inching back toward straight-ahead jazz, most
notably with the bebop-oriented 1994 trio disc Live In Marciac. The
stunning Gipsy Project of late 2001, though, announced Lagrène’s
full-fledged return to acoustic swing of the Reinhardt variety. Giddins
penned a rave review in The Village Voice. Nailing down Django’s style
as “a uniquely Gallic combination of jazz and sentiment,” he went
on to praise Lagrène’s take as “fireworks and jubilation”: “He gets
you by the short hairs with his knowing, percussive attack, tossing in
lightning tremolos...combin[ing] melodic comets with delirious runs.”
This was no longer imitation, but reinvention, the work of a mature
and formidable artist.
By no means is Lagrène the only Django-influenced guitarist working today. You could say he’s part of a new movement, one that includes Dorado Schmitt, Stochelo Rosenberg and Angelo Debarre,
not to mention several American groups modeled on Reinhardt &
Grappelli’s original Quintette du Hot Club de France. The full flowering of the nouveau gypsy movement can be witnessed on Lagrène’s
2004 DVD release Biréli Lagrène & Friends: Live Jazz à Vienne.
After a thrilling quartet set featuring Romanian gypsy violinist Florin
Niculescu, Lagrène brings on a stellar rotation of guests, including
guitarist Sylvain Luc and accordion master Richard Galliano. He tears
through Reinhardt classics like “Blues Clair” and “Belleville” with staggering wit, lyricism and technique. But his talented guests won’t let
him coast. “We are all buddies,” he says, disavowing any thought
of competition. “I’ve known some of them for 25 years. We’re just a
bunch of musicians getting together.”
With 2002’s Gipsy Project & Friends, 2005’s Move and the new
European release Just The Way You Are, Lagrène has furthered his
reputation as Django’s foremost heir and interpreter. But he’s found a
way to integrate all aspects of his musicianship, drawing no hard distinction between his acoustic and electric playing. Front Page, a 2003
power trio date with bassist Dominique Di Piazza and drummer Dennis Chambers, is the best recent example. Dreyfus Night In Paris, an
all-star encounter with fusion bass maestro Marcus Miller and others,
features him in a similar vein. Even unaccompanied, Lagrène draws
on the fullest range of tastes—his whimsical gloss on “We Are the
Champions” and “We Will Rock You” makes that clear. “I was always
a big fan of Queen, and the guitar sound that Brian May had,” he
says. “Their stuff just comes out sometimes. I think if I played only one
type of guitar or one style of music, I would get quickly bored.” ·