Saturday, May 20, 2017

Electric Django



It is often argued that when Django returned to Europe after his US tour with Duke Ellington, the new influences he had absorbed had changed his playing forever. Sure, with Duke he had played an electric archtop for the first time in his career (he simply had not taken his acoustic Selmer with him on the plane, not even a toothbrush as a matter of fact ...) but the following statement from Michael Dregni's book seems to stretch it a bit:
"He came to America playing swing. He returned to Paris playing modern jazz."
I think this is only partly true. You don't change your way of playing overnight. That takes a few years. His style had been developing since the late 30s and many of the traditional gypsy elements had disappeared already at the end of the war, in favor of a more modern approach. Listen to this take that was recorded during the historic tour with Duke in 1946:



It already sounds remarkably modern to me. He must have been assimilating the new jazz sounds for a few years ... And he really sounds quite comfortable with the Gibson L5 archtop he is playing. The guitar was fitted with a DeArmond pick-up and amped by a small combo amp. He never seemed to like archtops though. He once called them "tinpot guitars." When he returned to Europe after the war he put a Stimer pick-up on his Selmer.
 At the end of the war recordings from the USA started to filter through to Europe and in 1946 Django at last went to America and heard the developments of the "new" jazz firsthand. It was here that Django played an electric guitar for the first time. Listening to the few tracks recorded with Duke Ellington it sounds as though Django has also got hold of a good amp for the day. He has that uniquely big tone, but very little of the distortion which is characteristic of his early attempts to record with electric guitar. 
By 1949 the Bebop influence on Django's playing is obvious. His lines sound more and more Christian like and at this time he only plays his Selmer through an amp. Here's an old Stimer ad in which Django endorses his gear (pick-up and amp):


In 1951 Django put together a new band of the best young modern musicians in Paris including Hubert Fol, an altoist in the Charlie Parker mould. Listen to these 1951 clips of that band and what you hear is eh ... a bebop guitarist playing bebop.



But time was running out for Django. He did not record much in 1952 but in his final half year of life he produced some very interesting recordings on electric guitar, on March 10 and April 8. Another quote from Wayne Jefferies:
The March 10th session produced 8 absolute classics, including arguably his greatest rendition of Nuages. despite a couple of great swingers in Night and Day, and Brazil the whole atmosphere of this session is somehow permeated with a great melancholy. Evident on all the tracks is a strange mixture of sadness, beauty and depth. Manoir de Mes Reves has an air of quiet acceptance. It is very peaceful, but at the same time there is an almost unbearably desolate quality to it. As Norman Monyan observed, "its almost like he knew the end was coming."

Here's "Nuages" from the March 10 session.


And from that same fabulous recording session "Blues for Ike." Interesting to compare it with the earlier "Blues Riff" take he did in concert with Duke Ellington in 1946.


There was to be one more recording session on April 8 that produced four more takes showcasing Django as a modern jazz player. Here's "I cover the waterfront."


And from that same last session "Deccaphonie."



Django would be dead a month after this recording session. For a video account of his death click here.

I visted his house and his grave in Samois in 2004. He spent the last years of his life in the beautiful and picturesque village of Samois Sur Seine where he must have enjoyed some tranquillity, just fishing and painting.

It's easy to understand Bireli's remark that I quoted in my previous Blog entry:
"Django helped me to see what was happening elsewhere"
I'd like to close off with another quote from Wayne Jefferies. I think he sums up my feelings on the subject pretty well:
Perhaps with a little more time Django would have been accepted as a modern guitarist. As it was many of his fans would ask him "why don't you play like you used to with Grappelli". How saddening it must have been for this great man, in a sense snared by his past genius, who only wanted to express himself through the music that he felt and loved. Django's influence on the modern movement could have been much greater with another shot at America. But it was not to be. Nevertheless his place in Jazz history is assured, and for many he will continue to be the greatest guitarist that ever lived.

3 comments:

  1. What an amazing collection of insights into Django Reinhardt's life and playing. Truth is, I haven't paid much attention to gypsy jazz because to me it seemed like a bunch of guitarists just going "whackwhackwhackwhack" in an unyielding 4-4 time, with only the speed at which they ripped off cliched arpeggio runs giving any indication of their skill level. But Django is not like that! He seems to have a capacity for incorporating new elements of different styles in his playing. That has changed my whole perspective on him

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  2. I had an interview with Philip catherine a couple years ago where he said the current gipsy generation is missing the point of what Django's music was about.

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