Profile: adrien moignard

By Bill Barnes

“Those French guys are absolutely scary,” quips Simon Planting, bass player for Amsterdam’s Robin Nolan Trio. Backstage at the Mill Pond Arts Center in New Hampshire, the last concert stop on the trio’s North American tour, the conversation has turned to the thriving European jazz scene and its batch of up and coming uber-jazz guitarists.

Adrien Moignard

Perhaps the scariest one of all is 23 year old Adrien Moignard, one of the featured soloists in the Selmer 607 project, a landmark album involving five Gypsy jazz-style guitarist virtuosi, each performing on one of the few Selmer petite bouche acoustic guitars still in playable condition. His spanking fresh version of “Impressions,” an album highlight, portends greater things to come and has become a popular item on YouTube. I caught up with him at Django In June, an annual week-long music event in Northampton, Massachusetts dedicated to Gypsy jazz studies. There I had the opportunity to hang out with him a bit, take his master class and hear him in concert with his current group, L’ensemble Zaiti.

Andrew Lawrence, the creative force behind Django in June, had first heard Adrien six years ago at the annual Django Festival in Samois-sur-Seine, France, where the 17 year-old wunderkind was creating a stir at one of the event’s many impromptu campsite jam sessions. Andrew comments, “Even with my limited French, I understood the expressions of ‘mon dieu,’ coming from the other participants.” Getting him to teach and perform at the Northampton camp as a part of his first American tour was quite a coup for Andrew, although some had expressed doubts about the effectiveness of Adrien’s teaching skills, given the language barrier. Still, camp participants were eager to register for his master classes, if only to be able to observe that technique up close.


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As the interview day draws nearer, I begin to have real concerns over my own linguistic limitations and sleeping with headphones channeling a CD of conversational French lessons for several nights has done nothing to inspire confidence. As it turns out, I have no reason to worry. Adrien’s English, while not perfect, had progressed enough to meet me more than halfway.

On the afternoon of a muggy Friday the 13th, I arrive at the Smith College dorm where most of the camp activities are held. Andrew Lawrence immediately ushers me to the part of the lobby where Adrien and his band mates are focused on a laptop computer, engrossed in a soccer match between France and the Netherlands. Andrew introduces me to the young guitarist, who is taller, much more mature and self-assured than I had imagined. His greeting is polite and cordial, but our conversation will have to wait for the outcome of the match. Unfortunately, the French team loses.

We adjourn to the outside courtyard area where many of the classes and jams are still under way. There, over the competing strains of Gypsy guitars, violins, accordions, mandolins and basses, I break the ice by asking Adrien what first attracted him to jazz Manouche [i.e., Gypsy jazz, see glossary here]. He cites his early love of the violin.

“I began playing guitar at the age of 12, but have always loved the violin. When I heard Django with Stephane Grappelli, I fell in love with their music. Then I discovered other guys who were playing in that style, which gave me the determination to play this music.”

Born in Paris but raised primarily in the South of France, Adrien was already well versed in the style of Django Reinhardt when, at the age of twenty, he returned to the city of his birth to pursue a career in music. When asked if he studied guitar with anyone in particular he responds, “no, it’s just ear, listening to the music and trying to emulate Django and these other guys.” He adds, “I can’t read music, you know. I can read chords but I can’t read the notes.” I’m astonished. “All ear?”

“Yes, all by ear. Trying to understand the way Django thinks.”

I mention that I hear more than Django in his playing. There’s ample evidence of bebop and other influences.

“Yes I began with the Django licks but then I heard a lot of other musicians, like George Benson, Pat Martino; not only guitarists but Michel Petrucciani [the late French jazz pianist], Keith Jarrett, Frank Sinatra. . . a lot of things my players are interested in, maybe more into swing.”

“Any horn players?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah -- I love Kenny Garrett, I love John Coltrane, too, Miles Davis.”

I ask about his involvement in the Selmer #607 CD, which, he explains, had resulted from his friendship with one of the project’s organizers, Ghali Hadefi. One day he had received a phone call from an excited Hadefi, about a vintage Selmer now in the possession of nearby luthier- model number 607, just a few production units down the line from the actual Selmers played by Django himself. Fewer than 1,000 Selmer petite bouche models were ever made and not many have survived. Some are barely playable, but, according to Hadefi, this one was different. “He told me it’s very, very good.” Adrien visited the luthier a few times and played on this historic jazz box, falling in love with the instrument’s unique sound in the process.

In listening to the Selmer #607 album, it’s amazing how magnificent the guitar still sounds and how each artist reveals a different aspect of its well tempered character. However, some of the guitarists on the project have mentioned that 607 is not an easy guitar to play and I can’t resist asking Adrien about that. He’s quick to point out, “it’s an inspiring guitar, very good tone. She’s very special. So, when you play, it’s hard in the beginning, but if you practice a little you can get a very good sound.”

Crossing the courtyard on my way to Adrien’s master class the following morning, I’m more than a little concerned about getting a “very good sound.” In the left wing of the Franklin King House dormitory I find a dozen other clinic participants equally concerned, warming up in preparation. We compare axes and continue noodling away, until a tall figure comfortably attired in a running suit and sneakers enters the room. A respectful silence follows. Adrien Moignard is about to reveal some of the secrets of his technique.

He begins by sizing up the participants’ playing levels. We each take a chorus on Django’s “Minor Swing,” a simple 1-4-5 progression and the first Gypsy jazz tune most of us Gadje [Romani term for a non-Gypsy; see glossary here] learn to play. He listens, pauses for a moment and then launches into a series of dazzling arpeggios; in the flurry of sound, neither his picking hand nor the fretting fingers seem to make contact with the guitar.

“You all know arpeggios?” he asks, a little hesitantly. We nod in affirmation, though none of us seem too convinced after what we have just heard.

“Most of you have learned scales and arpeggios like this,” he says, as he demonstrates a fixed-position major scale, going vertically across the strings. “I’m going to try to show you the way the Gypsy guitarists do it.” He then deconstructs a major scale, the Gypsy way -- horizontally, across the length of the fretboard, shifting positions without a pause. “You play it this way, it gives you greater range, greater access to the higher notes, more choices,” he explains. Then he takes me by surprise. “Watch this,” he says, as he turns his back on us and continues to play. I think he’s having a little fun at our expense. “No, no, look!” Suddenly I get it. He’s revealing his left hand thumb position, pivoting, not sliding, through the shifting arpeggio, resulting in a much smoother pattern up and down the fretboard.

Over the next hour he demonstrates a series of arpeggios, including major, minor, diminished, whole tone/half tones, with incroyable speed and fluidity, along with other techniques, occasionally focusing on individual players and coaching them into position. And, so it goes, until the time is up and we tuck away our guitars, heads swimming and hearts singing. Any concerns over language barrier or teaching abilities have been thoroughly dispelled. After less than two hours in a clinic taught by a guy in his early twenties who never took formal lessons or learned how to read music, I consider throwing away over forty years of technique and professional experience and starting over.

I had wondered about his practice habits, the fundamentals he incorporated into his playing.

“It depends,” he says candidly. “Some days I play nothing, some days I play a lot. Sometimes I play the guitar for two weeks and then lay low. But, when I was very young, from the age of 16 until maybe now, I practiced a lot.”

“Scales? Modes?”

“Not really. I play with modes, but I don’t know I play modes, you know what I mean? It’s all ear. I understand it but I can’t really explain it.”

L’ensemble Zaiti is the result of a collaboration with co-founder Mathieu Chatelain, one of the most sought after rhythm players on the jazz Manouche scene today, having gigged with celebrated Romani artists such as Angelo Debarre and Tchavalo Schmitt. The collaboration has produced a group on the vanguard of a new wave, offering a fresh alternative to some of the establishment record industry’s over-processed, cliché-riddled pap currently crash-diving into grocery store muzak speakers. All afternoon Coltranesque sheets of sound have been emanating from some unknown region of the Laura Scales dormitory -- L’ensemble Zaiti’s Cedric Richard is putting his tenor saxophone through its paces, warming up for tonight’s much-anticipated concert, to be held, oddly enough, in a chapel on the Smith College campus.

Helen Hills Chapel is your postcard-perfect colonial era New England church, complete with white clapboard sides and towering steeple . . . and no air conditioning. Despite a sweltering East Coast heat wave, the sanctuary is packed. All the ninety-odd camp participants are there, along with curious Northampton townsfolk and the jazz Manouche faithful from all over the region, many dripping with sweat in the stifling humidity. Once L’ensemble Zaiti takes the stage, nobody seems to mind the heat. Over the two sets Adrien and company burn through tunes from different movements and eras: “Stompin’ At the Savoy,” “Four on Six,”” Cherokee,” a spirited “Blues En Mineur.” Cedric Richard displays his sensitivity on “Polkadots and Moonbeams,” his intensity on “Donna Lee.” Trading fours with the tenor, Adrien continually ups the ante on the bop workhorse, “Double Scotch.” It’s not your typical Gypsy fare, but then L’ensemble Zaiti is not your typical Hot Club Swing quartet. While, in the tradition of jazz Manouche, Mathieu Chatelain’s solid rhythm guitar work effectively covers the roll of drums and keyboard, Zaiti’s eclectic repertoire and Richard’s volatile tenor bring a contemporary element to their sound. Through it all, bassist Jeremie Arranger propels the group forward with a modern feel while still maintaining firm anchorage in the la pompe seabed. This is musical evolution in progress. Django would have undoubtedly approved.

In the second set, Adrien shows that he’s not afraid to share the spotlight, inviting another young guitar virtuoso, Gonzalo Bergara, onstage to join him in several numbers. Their musical dialogue delights the already enraptured audience. At the end of the set, they embrace. The concert ends on a high note, with the prerequisite encore, bows, thundering ovation, love and respect. Perhaps I’m an old softy, but moments such as these can still bring tears to my eyes.

Adrien isn’t exactly unaware of his abilities; he shows none of the false modesty which can be so cloying in an emerging talent. Yet he seems to take it in stride, retaining a sense of humor and a passion for playing unhampered by all the glare and adoration. He seems more or less philosophical about his prospects for the future, which look very promising for the young guitarist and his group.

“We have just signed with Iris Music and I’m very happy about that. We have distribution with Harmonia Mundi; our album will be released in France at the end of July.” He is also looking forward to performing on the main stage at this year’s Django Festival at Samois, with L’ensemble Zaiti as well as a reunion performance with the principals of the Selmer #607 project. “It’s a big psychological dream,” he admits.

Whatever fate may have in store for Adrien Moignard in the coming years, I’d lay odds that you will still find him sitting in on a campfire jam or two, an inspiration to future generations of guitar hopefuls making their annual pilgrimage to Samois.


August 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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