Half a century after his death, Django Reinhardt is still considered one of the world’s greatest guitar players. As an improviser, he could spin out long strings of powerfully inflected and perfectly chosen notes. And, he influenced generations of fellow guitarists. Birelli Lagrene, whose father was also a guitarist, fell under Django’s spell early.
“You know I had the chance to check out Django when I was a little kid thanks to my father who loved the way Django played. I started to play, listening to his records over and over, and try as hard as I could to pick up a few solos of his.”
Barely into his teens, Lagrene was hailed as the guitar heir to Reinhardt. He recorded his first album “Routes to Django” and performed at Europeon jazz festivals with the likes of Benny Goodman and Stephane Grappelli. But, by the time he was in his early 20’s, Lagrene says he was tired of being constantly compared to his idol.
“I laid back and then all of a sudden, you know, I said to myself ‘wow, this is incredible, why am I doing all this? I should better go and find my own way of playing guitar.’ And so I just left it aside because the respect was too big.”
The 1980’s and early 90’s were a time of exploration for Lagrene. He recorded a series of albums for the Blue Note label and worked with musicians like Jaco Pastorious, the bassist in the groundbreaking group Weather Report.
“It definitely did help me getting together with so many different musicians like for instance Jaco, who was a musical school where I didn’t come from at all.”
Lagrene has enjoyed success with his fusion and straight ahead jazz projects. And he has established his own wide-ranging artistic identity with fans and critics. That, he says was important. Still, Reinhardt’s gravitational pull has remained strong. Five years ago he decided to revisit his idol’s music.
“I don’t know if it is a matter of age, maybe I got older and maybe I just felt to play that music again just to see if it works again because I’ve been involved in so many different projects. I called up a couple of musicians you know fellow gypsies and we started rehearsing and you know all of a sudden there it was again.”
“It is a freedom now to play the music of Django now at the age of 38. I don’t feel that pressure anymore you know like when I was a kid where everybody would tap on my shoulder and say ‘Hey brother can you play some more of that?’ ”
Whether returning to the music of Django Reinhardt or playing a set of electric tunes, Lagrene says he has more artistic freedom than ever. Which explains his first-time pairing this Friday night with the 12-piece Romanian Gypsy Band…Taraf De Haidouks.
“We’re not related at all actually, you know, they have more this East European music going, much more traditional than jazz or swing music.”
“They gonna do their own thing and I’m gonna do mine and probably at the end we’ll probably get to play 2 or 3 tunes together.”
Guitarist Birelli Lagrene performs Friday at the Mondavi Center. There’s a link to more information at Capradio dot org. Paul Conley, KXJZ news.