The Return of Fapy Lafertin


ATLANTICO / SÁNDOR: Torontoi Emlek. BROUSELLE-DISTEL: La Belle Vie. RODGERS-HART: My Romance. BANDOLIM: Vibracoes. C. RAYMOND: The Baltic. LAFERTIN: Turn. Cinzano. Platcherida. Carnation. TRIPODI-RAYMOND: Fantasie En Sol. PORTER: It’s Alright With Me. DARDENNE: Pixinguinha Em Lisboa. WHITING: Japanese Sandman / Fapy Lafertin & his New Quartet: Steve Elsworth, vln; Lafertin, Dave Kelbie, Pete Finch, gtr; Tony Bevir, bs / Frémeaux & Associés FA 8521

Fapy Lafertin (b. 1950) is the leading exponent of the Belgian-Dutch style of gypsy jazz guitar. Like his model (and every other European who follows him) Django Reinhardt, Lafertin is a member of the Manouche “tribe” of gypsies. Among the many musicians he has played with over the decades was a brief stint with Reinhardt’s former musical partner, violinist Stéphane Grappelli. In addition to the traditional six-string guitar, Lafertin has also played a 12-string instrument.

It’s easy for any guitarist with an excellent technique who can bend notes a little to proclaim themselves another Django, but in my experience very few actually play like Django (Frank Vignola being the best) for the simple reason that Django was actually always a composer at heart who used jazz as an expression of his astonishing abilities, not a jazz performer who dabbled in composition. And there is a significant difference between the two. Grappelli, whose personality was the exact opposite of Reinhardt’s, could have told you as much. It was this utter fascination with the complexity of Reinhardt’s musical mind that kept Grappelli returning to play with him, despite their temperamental opposition.

My judgment of Lafertin is that he is an excellent guitarist and a pretty good jazz musician. For the most part, he wisely sticks here to simple, elegant performances of simple tunes. In several surface ways, Lafertin apes his model faithfully; he has memorized many of the great gypsy guitarist’s licks and turnarounds, and he is a good enough musician that he knows how to put them together with some ideas of his own to produce a recognizably Django-like chorus. The second song on this collection, which will be immediately familiar to listeners by its English title, The Good Life, is an excellent example of this.

Violinist Steve Elsworth does a pretty good job of sounding like Grappelli in his elegance of phrasing and command of his instrument, but only occasionally like him in terms of musical invention. My Romance is a happy example of both Lafertin sounding like Django and Elsworth sounding like Stéphane, and I was delighted to hear that bassist Tony Bevir is a real swinger who easily surpasses the abilities of Django’s original bassist, Louis Vola. Thus here we almost experience a feeling of déjà vu, as if hearing the original Quintet of the Hot Club of France in digital stereo. Alas, when Lafertin tries to emulate Reinhardt’s impromptu improvised pieces in Vibracoes, we suddenly realize the gulf that separates the brilliant composer (Django) and the modern-day wannabe (Fapy).

Mind you, this doesn’t mean that Lafertin is at all bad; in fact, at times he is actually quite brilliant; but brilliance is not exactly the same as greatness. Reinhardt touched greatness fairly often in his live and recorded performances; Lafertin and Elsworth only do so occasionally.

Regarding the four original pieces on this CD written by Lafertin, they again point up the difference between a songwriter and a composer. Such Reinhardt pieces as Appel Direct, Mystery Pacific and Bolero show a real composer’s mind at work. The closest Lafertin comes on this disc is in the introduction to Cecil Raymond’s The Baltic. Lafertin’s Cinzano is a peppy tune in 12/8 but not really a great composition.

I hope that the reader does not think I am trying to be hard on Lafertin, but whether he likes it or not, he sets himself up for such comparisons by emulating the string quintet format and musical style of Reinhardt; and when you set yourself up for comparisons, you really ought not to complain when you are thus compared. My assessment, then, is that he is a fine guitarist with a few moments of brilliance (his arrangement of Dick Whiting’s old 1920 tune Japanese Sandman is actually quite imaginative and beautifully done) but more pleasant than inspiring to listen to.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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