Hot jazz, cool Paris vibe

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The Best of Django Reinhardt

A few weeks ago, we went to the Green Mill and caught part of a set by Alfonso Ponticelli and Swing Gitan. Two amplified acoustic guitars, a violin, upright bass, drums and an accordion—the musicians were all twentysomething [or thereabouts] guys except the accordionist, and they were doing spot on Django Reinhardt-style gypsy jazz. Absolutely authentic and very lively—it transported the already historic Chicago jazz club back to Paris in the ’30s.

Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, here’s a little sample of an actual set at the Green Mill. Although bandleader Alfonso plays lead guitar, the videographer was obviously a friend of violinist James Sanders. But the clip will still give you a sense of the music and the moment and the place.

That lovely evening of course sent me in search of some actual Django Reinhardt music. The music snob in me generally causes me to ignore “Best Of” albums, but in the case of this one, they mostly got it right.

Django Reinhardt was born in a Gypsy caravan in Belgium in 1910. He started playing guitar when he was 11; by the time he was 13, he was playing professionally in working-class cafés. He eventually discovered jazz and in the 1930s, teamed up with French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. And that led to what I think of as the classic Django Reinhardt sound—hard swinging jazz, often with rapid-fire guitar work, usually teamed with Grappelli’s violin, always up to the challenge of Django’s masterful playing.

Decades after his untimely death in 1953, he remains arguably the best jazz guitarist of all time. In fact, that was the basis for an interesting Woody Allen film, Sweet and Lowdown, in which Sean Penn’s character considers himself the second best guitarist in the world, second only to Django.

Again thanks to YouTube, here is a wonderful clip of Reinhardt and Grappelli performing together. The music gets going in earnest after a stagey little newsreel bit.

The tracks that work best for me on The Best of Django Reinhardt are the smaller settings—quintets, duets, even solo pieces. They let the amazing guitar work shine through. On the couple/few tracks that feature a full orchestra, the guitar becomes more of a featured player than a leader. More important to me, at least, it loses that Paris jazz club vibe. Still, with a total of 18 tracks, there’s plenty to love here.

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