Quintette du Hot Club de France: Limehouse Blues

The Quintet of the Hot Club of France played a lot of songs about places they had never visited ("Chicago", "Charleston", etc.), but "Limehouse Blues" was about London and presumably all of the members had been there and knew that neighborhood. The Quintet recorded "Limehouse" twice in just under 8 months (both versions appear on the above CD) and the differences between them are quite astonishing. The first version was made for Decca in October 1935 and it moves along at a staid medium tempo and the solos are well-played but not too exciting. Something must have happened in the 8 months before the Quintet recorded the song again for HMV, for this time the tempo is considerably faster and the feeling is much rougher. Django's guitar murmurs a few dissenting thoughts during the relatively calm first chorus, but as the solos approach, Django and Stephane seem to momentarily fight over who will get the first solo. Stephane plays the solo while Django pushes the intensity with the guitars. To my ears, Stephane seems hemmed in by the simple chord sequence and his phrases, while of varied length, seem to all sound the same. Django has no such problem with the chords and he fires off a brilliant solo, using octaves and chorded passages to set off his ideas. As the solo progresses, his technique seems less polished as his octaves have a rough edge to them. In the ensemble chorus that follows, Django fills with reckless abandon. When Stephane takes back the solo spotlight, he's found his inspiration again, and in the course of his solo, he presages the descending ensemble part recorded by the Benny Goodman Quartet on "Avalon" in the following year. Was Benny listening to the Hot Club records in his off-hours?

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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Django Reinhardt: I'll See You In My Dreams

Recorded just two months before the outbreak of a war that would change his life and career forever, Django Reinhardt’s trio version of “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is a brilliant summation of his late-30s solo style with intriguing notions for future developments. The solo is almost entirely in single lines, and as we listen to Django create this two-and-a-half minute masterpiece, it is like we are inside his head as he discovers and develops his ideas. The precise musical logic that had always been present in Django’s playing is found here in extremely sharp focus as he takes motive after motive and turns them every which way until each turns into a new phrase that he can manipulate. In one case, that motive is one note, and as he plays that note a couple dozen times, he subtly changes the sound by changing the way he attacks the string. If his harmonic experiments are limited to a short passage early on, he finds a new challenge in offsetting rhythms and near the end of the side, there is a marvelous sequence with quarter-note triplet figures against the steady four-beat of Ferret and Soudieux. Reinhardt would have another 14 years on the planet, but even if his career would have ended with World War II, recordings like this one would have ensured his immortality.

August 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Quintette du Hot Club de France: Tea For Two (take 2)

“Tea For Two” must have been one of Django Reinhardt’s favorite songs at this period, as he recorded it five times between 1937-1939. Three of those versions were made by the QHCF in 1939 for the same label (All 3 of the 1939 versions can be heard on the above CD.) This version stands out from the others for its beautiful relaxed tempo and for Django’s amazing solo. The cut opens with Django and Stephane in duet on the verse. Grappelli is as elegant as ever, but Django is feeling rhapsodic and as he begins his solo on the tune, he goes into a breathtaking run, astounding not only for its length, but also for its asymmetrical architecture. Maintaining his penchant for single line solos, his second eight features a brilliant development of the song’s primary motive. In the next eight, he develops one of his own lines, but then returns to examining the original tune to finish his chorus. All of this is done so artfully that the casual listener can barely tell what’s going on. Django’s accompaniment style has also made a new development: there is a wonderful moment during Grappelli’s solo where Reinhardt hits a roll at full strength, but then immediately brings the volume down. In classical music, that’s known as a forte-piano, but it is rarely used in jazz. Here, it is a perfect way to balance the QHCF’s usual rough-and-ready style with the tender reading of a timeless standard.

August 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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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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Gaucho: Darktown Strutter's Ball

I never get tired of listening to so-called gypsy jazz. I mean, how can anybody not enjoy the energetic lilt of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli? (Please, if you don't, I'm not sure I want to hear about it).

In the case of Gaucho we have a modern interpretation of this timeless music that's jump-on-your-table fun. There is some crazy-great guitar work coming out of this band. There's also the fine accordion of Rob Reich. It is during his solo, at exactly the 1:30 mark, that full swingology is achieved. No wait, maybe it's during the nutty horn solo...

Ah heck, I don't know. All I can say is that the gypsy jazz-meets-jug band vibe is worth it on any night.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jermaine Landsberger: Babik

In his debut album on Resonance, Jermaine Landsberger breaks the sound barrier and a number of musical misconceptions along the way. While gadje (non-gypsy) Hot Club enthusiasts across the world are fervently woodshedding their pompe, along comes this astounding Sinti keyboardist, hard-bopping a Django tune as if it had been penned in a 52nd Street back alley and shot off in a rocket.

While Getting’ Blazed is full of stellar performances, including three tracks featuring the venerable Pat Martino, the level of musicianship on “Babik” is positively jaw-dropping. Backed by the laser precision of Genus and Mason, Landsberger delivers a modern, electrified treatment of the tune Django Reinhardt had written in honor of his second son. This is not as blasphemous as it may seem to the diehard jazz Manouche fans; Babik Reinhardt was a fine jazz guitarist in his own right, but he preferred playing bebop over the more traditional Gypsy swing of his legendary father.

Through the furious changes, Landsberger fires off crisp, throaty B-3 riffs, sounding like Joey DeFrancesco on steroids, his lines rousing and insightful. James Genus’s lively and lyrical bass solo cooks admirably. But it is guitarist Andreas Öberg who puts the sizzle on the steak, burning up his Benedetto archtop with molten-hot bop lines delivered with insane speed and clarity. Babik Reinhardt would surely dig this.

April 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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