Sunday, May 06, 2007

Bireli Lagrene's new Double-Disc Set

Some of the world's finest jazz musicians hail from ... France, as demonstrated by a terrific all-star concert in January at the International Association for Jazz Education conference in New York.

A group billed as the French Elite All-Stars -- violinist Didier Lockwood; harmonica player Oliver Ker Ourio; guitarist Sylvain Luc; bassist Remi Vignolo; and drummer Andre Cecarelli -- was joined by legendary pianist and composer MIchelle Legrand and accordion master Richard Galliano, whose own trio played a set the same evening.

France's contribution to jazz was a special emphasis of the 2007 IAJE. In that spirit, I'll point you in the direction of Luc's new Joko CD, which I reviewed for Jazziz (content not available online).

And here's my review of former teenage guitar wunderkind Bireli Lagrene's latest recording, a double-disc set encompassing a collaboration with a big band AND an unaccompanied concert recording.

Djangology/To Bi or Not to Bi
Bireli Lagrene With the WDR Big Band
(Dreyfus Jazz)

Celebrating 40 candles with a bang, former teenage Django Reinhardt emulator Bireli Lagrene takes a break from his hard-touring Gipsy Project to release a double-disc box. One CD is a bracing set with Koln, Germany’s WDR Big Band, while the other is a collection of starkly beautiful solo pieces, recorded live around the globe.

Variously referencing his affinity for gypsy jazz, hard bop and fusion, Lagrene again demonstrates virtuoso fretwork, stellar abilities as an improviser and a knack for matching his agile playing with the right tunes.

For his first-ever big band recording, assembled from material previewed at last year’s International Association for Jazz Education conference in New York, the French-born gypsy guitarist lights up bright, swinging arrangements penned by pianist-composer-arranger Michael Abene.

The mid-tempo, swinging opener “Place du Tertre” has Lagrene playing in unison with horn sections within the band before opening up for a solo. He relishes quoting from myriad tunes and themes throughout the album, tossing in nods to “As time Goes By,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and the James Bond theme. Reinhardt’s “Djangology” has the WDR passing around bits of the melody, the laidback “Blues En Mineur” is sparked by the guitar’s extended duo with trombonist Dave Horler, and Lagrene applies his surprisingly appealing, mature vocals to lush readings of “The Good Life” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.” A cascading “Caravan,” frontloaded with Olivier Peters’ tenor saxophone turn, is a highlight, too, and baritone saxophonist Jens Meufang comes to the forefront on the pretty ballad “Anouman.”

The solo recording, naturally, is far more intimate, as Lagrene employs his acoustic guitar for lush chording, fast-flying fretboard runs and fruitful detours. “La Belle Vie” is a gorgeous reworking of “The Good Life,” while “R&Bi” is a rambunctious, heavily percussive, funk-edged workout and Queen’s “We are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You” come in for the gypsy jazz treatment on “Deauville en Ville.”

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