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Djangology/To Bi or Not To Bi

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Album Review

Guitarist Bireli Lagrene is one of several European heirs to the tradition of Gypsy swing launched by Django Reinhardt. Lagrene has incredible technique on display through this two-CD set, which compiles a solo concert and a meeting with the WDR Big Band, which have also been released separately. In the solo live set, the guitarist plays ten originals that show the influence of Django Reinhardt yet incorporate elements of modern jazz and other styles. The intricate "Sur la Croisette" will impress fans of classical guitar, though it is very much a jazz composition. His moving take of "La Belle Vie" revives a popular decades-old ballad written by jazz guitarist Sacha Distel. One wild twist is Lagrene's blending of two rock songs, Queen's "We Are the Champions" and "We Will Rock You," with the 1960s pop hit "It Was a Very Good Year" in a long medley, which actually proves to be viable in a jazz setting, though the middle selection is its weakest link. On the second disc, Lagrene is joined by the WDR Big Band for a concert that is essentially a salute to Django Reinhardt, with a few modern twists added and imaginative arrangements by conductor Michael Abene. He plays electric guitar (which Reinhardt also utilized on occasion during the last decade of his career). There is also material not associated with Reinhardt, such as Lagrene's fiery bop opener "Place du Tetre," which is full of a distracting series of song quotes, while his sincere vocals in "The Shadow of Your Smile" and "The Good Life" (both written long after Reinhardt's death) are a nice surprise. The Reinhardt selections are all superb efforts. "Anouman" is an obscure masterpiece written by Reinhardt shortly before his death; Lagrene's touching rendition also features baritone saxophonist Jens Neufang. Abene's distinctively post-bop scoring of Reinhardt's "Impromptu" ignites Lagrene, who takes plenty of chances in his crowd-pleasing solo. The guitarist is also absolutely amazing in the uptempo post-bop setting of "Caravan."


Born: September 4, 1966 in Saverene, France

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s

When Biréli Lagrène's Routes to Django: Live was issued in 1980, the 13-year-old jazz guitarist was immediately praised by critics as a protégé of Django Reinhardt. He had already won a prize in a festival at Strasbourg in 1978, and his appearance at a Gypsy festival was broadcast on television. For the next five years, Lagrène would mime Reinhardt's style, even recording versions of the master's "Nuages" and "Djangology" on Swing '81. Over time, however, his role as a protégé began to seem limited....
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Djangology/To Bi or Not To Bi, Biréli Lagrène
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