Thursday, May 22, 2008
When it comes to Gypsy jazz, these are the best of times.
The blazing musical style created by Sinti guitarist Django Reinhardt and French violinist Stephane Grappelli has maintained a devoted following since the Quintette of the Hot Club of France became the rage of Paris in the mid-1930s. Over the past decade, however, Hot Club combos have proliferated around the country, as hundreds of musicians have embraced Gypsy jazz, which is typically played on two guitars, bass, violin and drums.
Stoking the style’s popularity are regular visits by amazing Gypsy guitarists from Europe, such as Bireli Lagrene; Dorado Schmitt and his son, Samson Schmitt; and Stochelo Rosenberg and his cousin Jimmy Rosenberg, all of whom hail from the Western European branch of Gypsies known as the Sinti. The latest Gypsy jazz guitar star to head this way is German-born Lulo Reinhardt, who performs at Monterey Live on Wednesday, May 28, as part of his first U.S. tour (which culminates next weekend at Djangofest San Francisco).
While Reinhardt describes himself as Django Reinhardt’s grandson, his exact biological relationship to the legendary guitarist isn’t clear. “There are hundreds of Reinhardts around Germany, Belgium and France, and they’re all related,” says Doug Martin, who plays rhythm guitar in the quartet that backs Reinhardt throughout his California tour. The group also includes Australia-based violinist Daniel Weltlinger and German bassist Harold Becher, the same players featured on Reinhardt’s recent CD Latin Swing, which showcases his emotionally extroverted version of the Hot Club sound.
“My music is a combination of original Gypsy swing, Latin, samba, flamenco, and jazz,” Reinhardt said in an interview last year from Shanghai. “It is complex, captivating, and untamed. My music cannot be categorized into any one genre.”
Whatever his relationship to Django, Lulo seems to be a chip off the Reinhardt block. Even by jazz’s expansive standard, Django was a larger-than-life figure. Many of the stories about him involve his perpetual irresponsibility. A heavy drinker and a ladies’ man, he was impulsive and unpredictable, often showing up late for gigs or not at all.
Born to a Gypsy family traveling in a horse-drawn caravan through Belgium in 1910, Django sojourned throughout France, Italy and North Africa as a child. As part of a family of performers, he started playing violin and banjo not long after learning to walk. By the time a fire swept through the caravan in 1928, maiming Django’s left hand, he was already a gifted guitarist. He taught himself to play using a revolutionary two-finger technique that turned his physical limitation into the basis of a spellbinding style that was as witty and soulful as it was expressive and urbane.
Between 1934 and the outbreak of World War II, Django and Grappelli’s Hot Club of France recorded more than 200 tunes, including sessions with the great jazzmen Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, and Rex Stewart. During the Nazi occupation, Reinhardt played all over Europe, avoiding the Nazi’s roundup and genocide of his kinfolk. His last recording, made just a month before he died of a brain hemorrhage on May 16, 1953, included elements of bebop, a style he helped inspire.
Lulo Django wears his surname proudly, but it’s no stylistic straitjacket, as he insists on following his muse wherever it takes him. “The Reinhardt name has opened doors for me and for other musicians in my family,” he said. “It is important to know in which direction to go afterward. Most people expect that I will only play the Django style and are surprised that I have taken my music to a whole new level.”
LULO REINHARDT Latin Swing Project performs 8:30pm Wednesday, May 28, at Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey. $15, 646-1415, www.montereylive.org.