From Django with love

Bireli Lagrène brings the legend back to life in Israel

BIRELI LAGRÈNE: It is not a competition, you know, who can play more, who can play faster. It is about the music.  (photo credit: SOPHIE LE ROUX)
BIRELI LAGRÈNE: It is not a competition, you know, who can play more, who can play faster. It is about the music.
(photo credit: SOPHIE LE ROUX)
Rock guitarists are often lauded – quite rightly – for their pyrotechnics. Then again, their jazzy counterparts generally take a more subtle line to their performance craft although, by and large, they too can produce the licks when required.
Bireli Lagrène has certainly proven his worth when it comes to dazzling his audiences with grease lightning fingerwork. The 53-year-old French jazz artist will be back here very soon, to show local audiences why he is considered one of the best around. Lagrène, who has graced the stages of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, is one of the star turns of this year’s Yo Guitarra Festival, with gigs lined up at Zappa’s Haifa venue (November 10 – doors open 8 p.m., show at 10 p.m.) and at Tzavta in Tel Aviv on November 11 (8 p.m.), in the company of Israeli gypsy music threesome Swing de Gitanes.
The binational confluence stands to reason. After all, Lagrène did start out as a devotee of legendary gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, and he quickly honed his musicianship to the upper regions of technical expertise and musical expression. Then again, he has been spreading his talents across broad stylistic domains for over four decades. “Yes, I started out with gypsy jazz but I quickly went somewhere else, picking up different styles of music – mostly around jazz,” he notes. “But gypsy music is where I made my debut.”
In fact, Lagrène who, like Reinhardt, hails from a Romani family, started out at a very young age. “I think I put out my first record out when I was 12,” he says. The first fruit was, naturally enough, called Route to Django. He has produced around 30 more since then, with the most recent, Storyteller, released last year.
By all accounts, Route to Django proved to be a pretty auspicious curtain raiser. “It went very well, as far as I can remember,” says the guitarist, with a touch of understatement. “I was just a child playing guitar, so the news went around quickly.” Sounds like a marketing executive’s dream.
That may be a neat crowd puller line of attack – “an attraction” as Lagrène puts it – but you can be a child prodigy for just so long and, as you grow up, you’ve got to keep producing the goods while developing your innate gifts. Lagrène has proven to be pretty adept at that over the years, casting his creative net far and wide, and hooking up with some of the leading artists on the scene. During the course of his 40-years-and-counting career, Lagrène’s path has crossed that of some of the field’s luminaries, such as saxophonist Benny Carter, who started out in the 1920s, king of swing clarinet player Benny Goodman and bassist Charlie Haden.
Lagrène, whose father and grandfather also played gypsy guitar, was prepared to put in the elbow grease from the off. “Those [gypsy] guitars are pretty hard to play but I can’t along with it very well. It was a lot of work, of course, but I practiced a lot.” Sacrifices had to be made if the youngster was to make it to the top. “Every day, I’d come home from school and I’d play a few hours, to learn all the stuff.” He was also developing his ear. “I’d listen to those records by Django. I learned a lot of his solos when I was a teenager. I learned most of his music from his records.”
Impressive enough, but following Reinhardt’s signature white hot lead can take you only so far, at some stage Lagrène had to put himself out there too. “That came a little later, probably when I was around 16 or 17,” he notes. “I became interested in other kinds of music. I put Django a little bit on a back burner. I started to go further, musically. I don’t do Django that much these days, but I will mostly be doing music in the style of Django in Israel. But I don’t have a problem with that. I know what I can do on my own side. And doing tributes, say for Django once in a while, I think is a good thing to do.”
HAVING TRODDEN the jazzy boards across the globe for so long, besides writing and performing his own material, Lagrène has been able to mix it with some of his renowned senior fellow professionals. One such is bassist and composer Charlie Haden, who died in 2014. Haden was not only an envelope pusher across various areas of jazz he had a peerless alluring sumptuous sound that captivated his audiences regardless of whether the charts tended to the more avant-garde side, or fed off the more folkie numbers that Haden both heard and performed, in childhood, as a member of his family’s traveling act.
Lagrène says he feels blessed to have been able to work with some of his illustrious forebears. “Charlie had such lyricism is his playing. It just felt great to play with him. We played some standards. It was great fun and really easy to play with him.”
For much of his working life, to date, the Frenchman has been front stage, either playing solo or sometimes alongside other leading exponents of his instrumental craft, such as now 77-year-old Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine. “I love playing with other guitar players,” he declares, adding that he is not out to show his audiences he is better than the rest. As far as Lagrène is concerned, the more the merrier. “I don’t have this competition instinct in me. I want to share the music with them. It is not a competition, you know, who can play more, who can play faster. It is about the music.”
And it is about channeling his creative spirit across different genres, and with all kinds of lineups. Even so, he does confess to a preference for smaller formats. “I like trios – bass drums and guitar. That’s what I have mostly done for the last 25 years. But it’s also nice to have a piano. It’s a little bit easier. You don’t have to play all the chords and stuff,” he laughs. More expansive sounds also appear to him and, despite his yesteryear musical roots, he is not averse to dipping into contemporary technological enhancement. “I also like playing in big bands. I also like playing with synthesizers, some more modern stuff. I am pretty much into that too.”
As one advances in years one often finds that less is more – you don’t have to unfurl all your tricks all the time. After dozens of studios recordings, and countless shows around the globe, Lagrène finds himself following a more distilled avenue of thought and rendition. “I think that, now, I go more after the tone than trying to play fast. You try to go for the stuff that counts, not necessarily playing all over the place.”
Lagrène says he believes that Reinhardt followed a similar path. “When he got older he was more settled, and it was more about the sound rather than playing incredibly fast.” Sadly, Reinhardt didn’t make it into old age, he barely made it past his 43rd birthday, but Lagrène and his ilk are keeping the gypsy guitar master’s legacy out there. “We’re just carrying the torch,” says the Frenchman. “There’s no one who can really touch Django.”
That may be so, but the audiences in Haifa and Tel Aviv next week are in for a helluva ride.
Yo Guitarra Festival and tickets: *9080 and (Haifa) and (Tel Aviv)