TRIBUTE TO STÉPHANE & DJANGO / REINHARDT-GRAPPELLI: Djangology. Tears. Minor Swing. REINHARDT: Nuages. Troublant Bolero. Nuits de Saint-Germain de Près. LAKATOS: Mr. Grappelli. SCHMITT-WINTERSTEIN: Mimosa. YOUNG: Stella By Starlight. NOBLE: Cherokee / Roby Lakatos, vln/dm; Biréli Lagrène, Andreas Varady gtr; Niek de Bruijn, dm; Modern Art Orchestra; Kornél Fekete-Kovács, leader / Avanti Jazz 10532
Being a huge fan of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, as well as a fan of Bireli Lagrène, I looked forward to this tribute album with bated breath. Well, I shouldn’t have bated my breath quite so much, because the duo of Lakatos and Lagrène have corrupted this tribute with a run-of-the-mill, splashy big band that sounds too heavy and intrudes on the mood.
One of the great delights of listening to the original Reinhardt-Grappelli Hot Club Quintet is that they did not sound heavy and lumpy. Their jazz swung with lightness and precision as well as tremendous invention, and even on those rare occasions when Django played with a French or a Dutch big band, said band fell into his style and complemented him perfectly. But the Modern Art Orchestra blasts unremittently. They have no subtlety, their arrangements are thick and generic. They sound like the old Tonight Show band under Doc Severinsen on a bad day, playing bumper music for an ad break. Just listen to their wholly unimaginative arrangement of Tears, surely one of Reinhardt’s most touching and original tunes. Moreover, they hog too much of the playing time, only giving Lakatos and Lagrène a chance for spot solos. The only track that worked was Cherokee, and that only because they played the wonderful old Charlie Barnet arrangement from 1940.
This is a shame because Lakatos is as good a Grappelli substitute as you are likely to hear. His playing swings, it’s imaginative, and it’s virtuosic. He has heart and soul in everything he plays. As for Lagrène, he plays electric guitar here but not with the hard downstrokes that Django used, so his overall sound is is much softer than his model, but his solos are consistently interesting. Were the big band not continually sticking its thumb in the eye of the music, this might have been an extremely fine album. I was delighted by the performance of Nuages, at least the first two minutes of it, because it was just Lakatos and Legrène with the rhythm section. Then the band comes in to spoil the mood; happily, they hang back most, but not all, of the time on this one, and the violinist in particular is simply brilliant.
Now, mind you, I have no complaint about updating the Reinhardt-Grappelli style somewhat. Frank Vignola has done just that over the past 30 years, and indeed Django himself updated his style to include a great deal of bop in the last five years of his life. There was a tasteful way of doing this, but unfortunately whoever produced this album (it’s a live session) should have had his jazz credentials taken away from him.
For examples of what I mean, listen to Troublant Boléro, Mimosa and Stella By Starlight, three tracks where the orchestra sits out completely. In the first we hear some pretty spectacular pizzicato violin playing and a little nifty electronic feedback from guitarist Lagrène, and in the second the duo and the rhythm section really take off, flying like seasoned aces without a parachute. Great stuff! Stella starts out like a straightforward ballad, but before long the duo doubles the tempo and sets up an outstanding duet, with backup guitarist Andreas Varady playing some surprisingly funky licks behind Lakatos and Lagrène in their solos. And is Lagrène good on this track, or what? Django would have been proud of him. He swings, he’s bluesy, and he’s quite daring. Thanks to the afore-mentioned Barnet arrangement, plus the fact that the orchestra sits out much of the track, Cherokee also flies high, including a superb and unidentified (to me) trumpet solo.
Bottom line: if the producers of this concert and disc had wanted an orchestra to fit the proper style, they should have hired a different band, either an interesting and lighter group or the Bratislava Hot Serenaders, who can play virtually every kind of big-band jazz from Paul Whiteman to Duke Ellington with perfect feeling and style. The “Modern Art Orchestra” is a bullshit organization, playing bullshit jazz in a bullshit style. Recommended for the playing of the principals only.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
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