Gadjo Combo’s “Slavopop”

SLAVOPOP / JOUBERT: Anatole France. Charlie et Mila. Par faim de toi. Slavopop. Côme dit. Complètement ballade. REINHARDT: Swing 39. Swing 42. PLASSARD: Shufflematic. Memory Intro. Memory. SAMPSON-WEBB-GOODMAN: Stompin’ at the Savoy. MATER: Oui! Mai / Gadjo Combo: Marc Joubert, Jean-Charles Mater, gtr; Philippe Plassard, vln/gtr/el-gtr/bs; Serge Saussard, bs / Fremeaux et Associes LLL344, also available for free streaming on YouTube in individual numbers

Gadjo Combo is yet another small jazz group modeled after the Stéphane Grappelli-Django Reinhardt Hot Club Quintet of the 1930s, their music occasionally updated rhythmically to reflect some later pop music influences. They are excellent if not unique, largely due to the improvising abilities of lead guitarist and leader Marc Joubert and violinist Philippe Plassard, who also plays guitar and electric guitar at times. As usual, there are no drums in this band, again reflecting the aesthetic of the original Quintet.

Which is all well and good, but somehow Django Reinhardt’s utter brilliance and originality as an improviser and composer get lost in the shuffle. Although, due to popular demand, the Quintet re-formed after World War II for a brief spell, by 1947 Django had also switched to playing the electric guitar and his improvisations began more and more to reflect the influences of bop, particularly the style of Dizzy Gillespie who he genuinely admired. This gets forgotten, too; there are thousands, perhaps millions, of people out there who only associate Django with the acoustic guitar and his earlier style. They don’t even know that he played electric guitar and, eventually quite a bit of more modern jazz.

I’m also starting to wonder if this style of jazz is really, as reflected in this group’s name, a Gypsy style or a French style of jazz. After all, Grappelli was French, as was bassist Emile Vola, though Django hired his brother Joseph and his cousin Eugene Vèes to play rhythm guitars with the band. It’s an interesting question, and we shouldn’t forget that it is also, to a lesser extent, a British style of jazz, because although the Quintet never played in America they did play in London, which is where Grappelli got stranded when the war broke out and Reinhardt ran back to Paris. (Grappelli had been sick and in the hospital at the time, and Django, though he informed him of his plans, just left him there, figuring he’d be safe in the care of the British.) Django Reinhardt Societies broke out in Britain after the war and remained strong for decades, and even today one of the better Hot Club clone bands, Man Overboard, is British.

With all that being said, this is a fun disc to listen to, largely because of Joubert’s and Plassard’s solo abilities. Of course, Joubert isn’t nearly as good as the two best Django clones of the past 40 years, Frank Vignola and Biréli Lagrène, but he’s good enough to hold your attention. By contrast, I’d almost put Plassard on the same level as Grappelli; all he really lacks is that little bit of fire that sometimes got lit under Stéphane, pushing him to some of his wildest and most emotionally satisfying improvisations.

The first two tracks, Anatole France and Charlie et Mila, reflect some of the latter-day pop influences I alluded to earlier, and the title track is surely one of the catchiest things I’ve heard in years, a mixture of a Russian-sounding tune with Hot Club rhythmic energy. On this track, too, Joubert comes surprisingly close to capturing some of Reinhardt’s brilliance as an improviser as well as some of his rhythmic energy, and it is here, too, that Plassard sounds the most like his model.

But I think the thing that impressed me the most was how one doesn’t really miss that extra rhythm guitar that Django insisted on adding to the group. (His complaint to Stéphane was, “When you solo you have two guitars behind you, but when I solo I only have one!” “Well, then,” Grappelli replied, “why not add your brother Joseph then?”) Of course, modern miking has a lot to do with this, and I cannot deny that this album is superbly engineered, in fact better than Gadjo Combo’s earlier CD (which is also on YouTube). The little band sounds as if they are playing in your living room, spreading Gypsy joy to brighten up your day. And let’s face it, how many jazz combos nowadays can you honestly say lift your spirits and make you happy while still producing good solos?

Stompin’ at the Savoy—oddly enough, one jazz standard of the 1930s that the original Hot Club Quintet never played—is taken at Chick Webb’s faster tempo and not the slightly slower one that Benny Goodman made famous. Incidentally, the title refers to the jazz beat that was still popular at the time it was written (1934, without Benny Goodman who just added his name to the sheet music after his record came out), which was the stomp beat. This had a bit more of a 2/4 feel to it than the 4/4 swing beat that established itself a couple of years later. The band sounds incredibly happy on this one. Côme dit has a bit of a rock feel to it. I don’t think Django would have minded; it has the kind of changes he could go to town on, and he’s have torn it up in his own sweet way.

Although it is more of a swing number than a rock one, Django’s Swing 42 is where Plassard chooses to break out his electric guitar…which I wouldn’t have minded one bit if he had stuck to playing a jazz style and not a rock style. Bad idea, Philippe. I suggest that you dig up Django’s electric guitar recordings (which, incidentally, are all available in Fremeaux & Associes’ Complete Django Reinhardt series) for some ideas. The violinist’s original tune, Memory, is more of a medium-tempo pop number than a jazz one, but it gets by.

In toto, then, a very enjoyable album and a nice break from the angst-filled jazz of today.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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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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