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Gypsy Jams 

Django Reinhardt comes alive

Wednesday, Nov 1 2006
Django Reinhardt played like no one else. Born in a Belgium caravan and raised on the open road, the Gypsy jazz guitarist developed an irrepressibly upbeat, saucy swinging style that sounds as fresh today as it did when he first barnstormed Europe in the 1930s with his Quintette du Hot Club de France.

The key to Reinhardt's fresh interpretations of dynamic jazz standards, like Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing" and Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," was an awe-inspiring right-hand technique. His hard flat-picking speed and spot-on precision seemed more like the work of a classically trained pianist than a self-taught six-string plucker. What's more, he pioneered a bold sweep-picking method that's curiously now de rigueur among aspiring metalheads and thrash guitarists the world over.

Though flashy, Reinhardt's performances were not about virtuosity for virtuosity's sake; they were all about the fun. His party-high approach to jazz was based around making the songs sing. Thus, despite the dizzying velocity of his note-to-note phrasing, his lines tended toward ear-pleasing, straightforward arpeggios of standard chord changes. In lesser hands this would mean trite music, but Reinhardt combined his melodic sensibility with kick-up-your-heels grooves that were so deep they actually peeved American jazz cats at the time who thought they had the monopoly on swing.

Today, countless six-string slingers from both sides of the Atlantic try to channel Reinhardt's sound into their own, but few come as close to the original spirit as Dorado Schmitt, a French Gypsy bandleader who's been touring the "Django Reinhardt Festival" with his son Samson and a variable cast of players for the past five years. This event promises to be the liveliest gig in this season's SFJAZZ fest and is a must-see showcase for guitarists and guitar fans of all stripes.

About The Author

Sam Prestianni


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