Quintette du Hot Club de France: Honeysuckle Rose

In a way, this 1938 version of “Honeysuckle Rose” is a throwback to the earliest recordings of the QHCF. It is set in a bouncy two-beat, and Reinhardt takes the first solo, going back and forth between melody and improvisation. But closer listening shows that the group had come a long way in just over three years. First of all, Django’s style had evolved to primarily single-string solos. While his earlier recordings showed him to be a master of varying styles from single-string to chords to runs to maintain listener interest, his recordings from this period show a new confidence in the strength of his single lines. His “Honeysuckle” solo has only one little octave outburst, yet we are captivated by his solo. He is also more harmonically savvy, and the “outside” note choices he makes sound much more assured than on his Japanese Sandman solo of six months earlier. Grappelli’s rhythmic sense is more attuned than on the early sides and his playing displays elegance and fire simultaneously. The little ensemble figure Reinhardt and Grappelli play in the final chorus is simply delightful, and when Grappelli solos during the bridge, there is Django offering vocal encouragement.

August 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Philippe Brun: Blues

One of the finest French jazz trumpeters of his day, Philippe Brun is nearly forgotten now and except for his collaborations with Django Reinhardt and Alix Combelle, few of his recordings have been reissued. Inspired by Bix Beiderbecke, Brun's lovely tone came through even when, as on "Blues", he played in a cup mute. I don't know just how the musicians decided on the unusual instrumentation for this recording, but it created a delightful and delicate sort of chamber jazz, and it was a precursor to Edmond Hall's famous Celeste Quartet session of 1941. (Was it an inspiration? Who knows if any member of Hall's pickup group ever heard this recording?) Brun takes the first solo, and although he's the featured player for the side, he never tries to impress with flashy displays of technique. Instead, he plays a simple, soulful statement that cuts right to the core. Grappelli (who was also an excellent pianist) enjoys playing around on the celeste, but Django's solo is quite serious and studied. There's no guitar effects, just a passionate single-string solo made up of perfectly-sculpted phrases, with a surprising turn to the low register as Brun returns. If Brun had a weakness, it was his sense of rhythm. He was clearly behind Grappelli and Reinhardt when it came to swinging eighth notes. But close to the end, Django picks up on Brun's shuffle rhythm and by using it--slightly adapted--in his accompaniment, is able to bring Brun a little closer to authentic swing style.

August 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: Minor Swing

"Minor Swing" may be the most popular record Django Reinhardt ever made. Tom Lord's online discography lists it as being reissued on at least 30 albums and it has also appeared on several film soundtracks. And, after all, who can resist its catchy melody and pervasive minor harmonies? Certainly not I, and it has been one of my favorite Django tracks since I first heard it nearly 25 years ago.

The calm introduction (which is actually all there is of a melody) offers little clues to what follows, but it features a rare instance of a string bass solo on a QHCF record. But when the second bass break suddenly becomes very aggressive, Django kicks off the main tune, the group lays into the minor chord sequence, and we're in for a wild ride! Django's fiery solo stays in single-string for the first two choruses, achieving its passion through dramatic bent notes. Then in the third chorus, he combines a block chord, a roll and a glissando up and down the guitar, and his instrument roars like a lion. Grappelli picks up on the growing intensity and his violin solo builds and builds with each successive chorus. Eugene Vees and Joseph Reinhardt, who hardly got notice in the QHCF, are excellent on this recording--I still marvel at how they could create such a strong backbeat without a drummer behind them!

And then there's the talking. Django had quite a reputation for shouting verbal encouragements during recording sessions. According to Benny Carter, it was Django that shouted "Go on, go on" to Coleman Hawkins on their 1937 recording of "Crazy Rhythm". (The fact that Hawkins did go on--unheard of in those days--created one of the greatest recordings of the 78 rpm era). On "Minor Swing", we can hear Django egging on Stephane as the performance builds. It's only at the very end of the record, when the entire group says "Oh, Yeah" that we realize the QHCF has played a little joke on us and has brilliantly set the whole thing up during the course of the record.

August 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dicky Wells: Japanese Sandman

Even before the Quintette of the Hot Club of France started recording, Django Reinhardt was a first-call player whenever American artists recorded in Paris. Owing that Django could barely read and write his own name, let alone music scores, it was amazing that he achieved such a status. But his ear was precise and he could translate what he heard to the guitar with stunning accuracy, and that is a major part of his legendary reputation.

Trumpeter Bill Coleman and trombonist Dickie Wells were touring Paris as part of the Teddy Hill Orchestra when they recorded this session for Swing (Dizzy Gillespie was also with the band, and ironically, he was the only trumpeter from the band not invited to play at the session!) This delightful version of “Japanese Sandman” was the last song cut that day and it features remarkable solos by all three principals. Wells is up first, barely touching the melody before moving into his own invention. Yet he never loses sight of the opening motive and many of his ideas are related to that motive, either rhythmically or melodically. Coleman follows with his sunny, open tone. His first half-chorus features a set of perfectly-balanced phrases. Then the last phrase spills into the bridge and his phrasing shifts three beats off the form. Coleman keeps things that way until he ties it all up with a beautifully-played 6-bar phrase. Then Django steps up with a mostly single-string solo that features some intriguing harmonic choices in the 5th-8th bars. The rest of the solo is rather straight-forward harmonically, so it’s hard to know whether Django was fully aware of what he was doing and if he considered it a momentary mis-step (If Dizzy had been at the session, he would have known!). However, it was not an isolated incident and Django, who later expressed admiration for the harmonic innovations of Gillespie and Charlie Parker, would experiment again with advanced harmonies in the next few years—several years before bebop was born.

August 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: When Day Is Done

Django Reinhardt opens this version of “When Day Is Done” with a dramatic unaccompanied guitar cadenza. I suspect he was trying to emulate Louis Armstrong’s introduction to West End Blues and indeed, one can imagine young guitarists being bowled over by the recording. It impresses me as well, but the solo that follows is quite special for what isn’t there. As the introduction has plenty of contrast between chorded sections and single lines, the ensuing solo is entirely comprised of single line melody and embellishment. The filigrees are tasty, the bent notes are heart-rending, and the atmosphere is so engulfing that it’s hard not to imagine yourself floating in a canoe down the Seine as Django and his friends serenade you. The mood breaks as Django picks up the tempo and Grappelli enters. While the final choruses are well-played, this time the disconnect is too great from what came before and this part of the recording just sounds like more of the same. Time to go back and listen to the first half of the record again!

August 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: Hot Lips

“Hot Lips” must have seemed a strange choice for the QHCF. Although the song was only 15 years old at the time, it was certainly dated as a remnant of 1920s hot-cha. After a plethora of recordings in the twenties, the song went unrecorded by jazz artists for nearly five years. Significantly, the two recordings from 1935 and 1936 were made in London, and perhaps Grappelli or Reinhardt heard one of those versions and decided to try it with the QHCF. At any rate, this is a very pleasant medium-tempo version of the song. Grappelli starts off the proceedings with a fairly straight reading of the melody over the trademark chunk, chunk-a-chunk rhythm of the guitars. Django’s solo is marked by a long section in parallel sixths. Usually, Django avoided using the same sound for several bars, but here, there is a mild amount of experimenting going on, first to see how long he could maintain interest with the same voicing, and second, to see if a slight change would break up the monotony. As he finishes an eight-bar phrase, he fills in the note between the open sixth creating a chord voicing straight out of Alvino Rey! In fact, the figure he plays involves moving the voicing between chords a half-step apart, which is an easy effect to play on a slide guitar. The effect is a little corny and Reinhart didn’t use it much, but for an old obscure song, it worked well enough.

August 28, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: Shine

Django Reinhardt’s solo on “Shine” was one of his finest to that point in his career. In it, he forms a direct link to Wes Montgomery by using a similar concept in building his solo. Montgomery was fond of starting a solo with single lines, taking the next chorus in octaves and finishing with block chords. Reinhardt’s concept of solo construction was actually more complex than Montgomery’s, but I suspect that Montgomery heard this recording and learned a lot from it. Here, Reinhardt plays in single lines throughout the first chorus and moves to octaves at the beginning of the second. The block chords don’t come in until the end as Reinhardt is accompanying Grappelli. Although the building blocks are similar, the overall effect is different. As Reinhardt gained more experience, he became an expert in pacing his solos so they would make sense as a musical entity. Instinctively, he seemed to know the precise moment where block chords would properly set off his single lines. His mastery of pacing keeps our ears riveted to the guitarist in solo after solo. Another highlight of the solo occurs in the 12th -14th bars as Reinhardt blurs the lines by spontaneously turning a single line into a blistering run. In the final choruses, Reinhardt and Grappelli are basically a duet with the rest of the band humming along in the background. Reinhardt had refined his accompanying style, retaining its active stance in the music, but not stealing the spotlight away from Grappelli.

August 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: After You've Gone

After its initial recordings on Ultraphone and Decca, the QHCF moved to the HMV label. “After You’ve Gone” was recorded on their first session for the label and there seems to have been some growing pains. The balance is not as good as on the other labels, with especially weak recording of the bass. The opening chorus is by Grappelli this time around and he is immediately followed by the Louis Armstrong-inspired singing of Freddie Taylor. It seems that everyone is holding back in these opening choruses, and sure enough, as soon as Taylor is finished, the intensity goes up as Django goes into a finger-busting chorus filled with fast arpeggios and runs, and concluding with a chorded intro to Grappelli. The violinist takes charge, building the intensity with every chorus. The breaks, built into the tune at the end of each 16-bar section, seem to have little effect on Taylor, but each time Reinhardt and Grappelli hit them, they add to the growing excitement of the recording.

August 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stephane Grappelli & His Hot Four: St. Louis Blues

Grappelli might have been the leader on this date, but Django is the soloist for all but the last minute of this record. For anyone of that time who was not aware of the guitarist, the unaccompanied introduction might make them think that they were hearing a classical player. Yet, as Django slides into a slow-walk tempo and the opening melody of “St. Louis Blues”, there is no doubt that his heart lies in jazz. He makes effective use of bent notes in the opening chorus, and his flashy but tasteful runs add dramatic contrast. When he goes to the tango section, he adds to the drama with strong lines in parallel octaves. The tempo picks up as the band returns to the blues choruses, and Reinhardt’s final chorus is marked by block chords and one of his trademarked guitar rolls. When Grappelli enters, Reinhardt steals the spotlight back with his unique accompanying style featuring choppy block chords and rolls at the turnarounds.

August 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: Oh, Lady Be Good

From the very first session of the QHCF, “Oh, Lady Be Good” shows the group still getting its bearings. The swing rhythms are still a little jerky, and part of the problem is Louis Vola’s two-beat bass pattern. On the occasions where he plays four beats to the bar, the rhythmic issues straighten themselves out almost instantly. After Grappelli & Reinhardt’s opening figure, the guitarist takes his first solo, paraphrasing the Gershwin melody as he goes. This was a typical setup for the early QHCF sides and Django was very adept at alternating between melody and improvisation. What is already present here is Django’s fine sense of sequencing and developing motives, as displayed in a superbly executed sequence near the end of his second chorus. However, he didn’t have a wide range of licks, and he had not yet developed a sense of solo structure. There is a hint of future developments during his second solo as he strongly chords to designate the surprise modulations. Grappelli seems a little less polished than we might expect, but he delivers two red-hot solos that raise the intensity of the performance.

August 27, 2009 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Taxi War Dance

Perhaps his finest moment on record, Young is probably also (mostly) responsible for “Taxi War Dance’s” very simple head arrangement, though he only gets half the composer credit. The first of his solos is particularly ingenious: It begins sounding like a cohesive and hyper-lyrical 12-bar blues, but soon reveals itself to be “Willow Weep for Me” changes. Throughout this and his later solos (trading fours with the full band and Basie), he remains light as a feather—yet he continuously reaches outward with his phrasing and harmonies, and upward with his range until it’s genuinely hard to remember that Young isn’t an alto player. Sandwiched in is a superlative solo by trombonist Dickie Wells that nearly equals Young for lyricism; it feels like an aside, however, in what is clearly Prez’s show.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Dark Rapture

“Dark Rapture” is a taut showpiece for singer Helen Humes that ranks among the glossiest productions of the early Basie years. Not coincidentally, it’s also among the least typical: There are no riffs, no blues, the call-and-response lines are reduced to short fills, and though Basie is listed as pianist, his trademark tinkling is nowhere to be heard. There are, however, two factors that inject some character into the proceedings: Humes’ exquisite control and enthusiasm, which together allow for some remarkable vocal gymnastics—check out her reading of the final line,The thrill that fills the still of a Congo night—and eighteen smoky bars by Lester Young that add a mysterious, noir-ish dimension to an already dark and dramatic performance. (In essence, he scores the scene in which Bogart would walk into the crowded but dimly lit nightclub and spy Lauren Bacall on the dance floor; the only thing missing is the movie.) Kansas City blues it ain’t, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Teddy Wilson (with Billie Holiday): Say It With A Kiss

If there be any doubt that Prez and Lady Day were musical soulmates, one listen to their work together on “Say It With A Kiss” should settle the question. Holiday’s subtlety and velvet tone on her vocal chorus echo through Young’s eight bars; even with Harry James’ brilliant golden exclamations interpolating, the two can’t help but to be of a piece. What Young can’t replicate, however, is the sly, winking quality in Holiday’s delivery—which is only augmented by her reshaping of the melody. Instead, he plays out the tune’s fundamental sweetness on his axe, thus complementing Lady Day even as he reinforces her. Everything, in other words, that soulmates are supposed to do.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Kansas City Six: Way Down Yonder In New Orleans

Eddie Durham’s arrangement for this 1922 standard is such a perfect one for the swing era that it should be in every jazz education curriculum in the world. But the fairly simple arrangement is also a deceptive one: trumpet and clarinet play the head together over acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, but then tenor saxophone and electric guitar erupt in the solos. Doesn’t that make seven, not six? The answer, of course, is that Lester Young plays both sax and clarinet on the record, and it’s no surprise to hear that his clarinet is as distinctive as the tenor—breathy, soft, high, and endlessly lyrical. Interestingly, while Young’s originality continues to flourish in his tenor solo (who knew relaxed rhythms and slightly displaced harmonies could sound so daring?), Clayton’s relentless melodic imagination gives him quite a run for his money. Durham, here playing one of the first electric guitar solos on record, is no slouch on the harmonies, either. Nonetheless, there’s something special about hearing that one of the great instrumental masters had actually mastered two instruments.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Count Basie: Honeysuckle Rose

With Walter Page and Jo Jones standing firm behind him, Count Basie’s two stride piano choruses at the opening of “Honeysuckle Rose” tie the aggressive rhythms of Kansas City to the swinging life of Harlem. Then come the Count’s men, amping up the infectious upbeat and bringing in Midwestern riffs that sound suspiciously like “Tea for Two.” (The most danceable “Tea for Two” you’ve ever heard, that is.) Meantime, Lester Young demonstrates that his ethereal, hollow sound is as capable of charging through the swingers as it is of floating through the ballads and mid-tempos. Listening 70 years later, we can also hear how his solos rewrote the saxophone vocabulary: There are phrases in Young’s single chorus that were later borrowed and developed by Paul Gonsalves, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, all the way through Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman—and this inside less than 40 seconds of music. No wonder they called him the President.

August 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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