In Manhattan, It’s a Django Reinhardt Moment

Apparently by sheer coincidence, there are now no less than three eagerly anticipated events celebrating the jazz guitar colossus.

Beth Naji
Samson Schmitt, Antonio Licusati on bass, and Michael Harris play at Django Reinhardt Festival 2022, at Birdland. Beth Naji

Django Reinhardt Festival 2022, Birdland, through November 5;
Shades of Django with Stéphane Wrembel, featuring Cyrille Aimeé, the Appel Room (Jazz at Lincoln Center), through November 5;
Tatiana Eva-Marie and The Avalon Jazz Band, ‘Djangology,’ Drom, November 13

It’s another one of those zeitgeisty moments, when the music of a certain jazz icon is in the air even though it’s not an occasion for a birthday party or a particularly noteworthy anniversary moment. Apparently by sheer coincidence, there are now no less than three eagerly anticipated events celebrating a jazz guitar colossus, Django Reinhardt. Who do we think he is, Stephen Sondheim?

First, the semi-annual Django Reinhardt Festival is here, as it is every fall at Birdland, featuring a traveling troupe of contemporary Djangologists imported from the motherland. Meanwhile, two more or less permanent residents of New York — transplanted Europeans both — are also offering Django fests of their own: Stéphane Wrembel at the Appel Room in Rose Hall, and Tatiana Eva-Marie at DROM.

The current edition of the Birdland Django Fest, produced as always by Pat Phillips, is mostly “the usual suspects” (as Captain Renault says at the end of “Casablanca”), but the term “usual” here connotes an extraordinarily high level of musical prowess. For decades, the headliner of the group has been Dorado Schmitt, but the 65-year-old stayed home this year because of issues with international travel and vaccination. Ms. Phillips promises he’ll be back next fall. 

Thus his son, Samson Schmitt, has taken the leading role as the major guitar star of the enterprise. He is joined by Baltimore resident Michael Harris on rhythm guitar, as well as three regulars: violin virtuoso Pierre Blanchard, Italian bassist Antonio Licusati, and Ludovic Beier on his distinctive pearl button accordion. 

There are other differences: Traditionally, the program is more like a festival, with different guest stars participating on different nights. This inevitably ratchets up the excitement level, which, believe you me, is high enough as it is. The five regular players are already capable of playing so fast the human ear can hardly keep up with it. When a competitive, even combative player like the amazing James Carter joins the combo, it sometimes becomes more like a soccer match or a four-minute mile sprint. Exuberant yes, and generally leaving the audience even more breathless than the musicians.

This week there were no guests except for Samson Schmitt’s two daughters, and nobody was disappointed: I’ll explain why in a moment. First, there’s one other aspect of the Django Fest that requires comment.  This week, the various Charles Mingus tribute bands are holding forth in the Birdland Theater downstairs; I caught the excellent Mingus Orchestra right after the Django Fest, hearing them play about eight compositions by the mighty Mingus. Likewise, Dave Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Eternity Band has been playing numbers from the Armstrong canon on every Wednesday evening at Birdland for more than 20 years. 

Yet while Reinhardt was also a brilliant composer, one of jazz’s all-time greatest, the Django Fest never makes it a mandate to play his actual music. Out of 13 tunes in the Thursday early set, there was only one Reinhardt composition (his theme “Nuages”), and two others that he recorded, the jazz standard “Sheik of Araby” and the Gypsy perennial “Orchichonia (Dark Eyes).”

This bothers me less than in previous festivals, because the emphasis this year is on the ensemble. Much as we associate Armstrong with the seven-piece “dixieland” band, and while Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie created the familiar five or six piece bebop unit, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France combination was created and perfected by Reinhardt and his long-term professional partner, Parisian violinist Stéphane Grappelli.

Merely by working in that format — with an essential core of lead guitar, rhythm guitar (the original QHCF actually boasted three guitarists), solo violin, and bass — you honor their memory. 

Without Schmitt Senior, and without the barn-burning guest horn players, we had a chance to focus on the band, and said band was able to concentrate on matters other than playing as many notes as possible in as short a time as possible. They opened with the requisite speed demon number, Mr. Schmitt’s “Attitude Manouche,” but then essayed the first of several surprisingly relaxed tangos, Mr. Blanchard’s “Troublant Romeo,” which suggested a mashup of Reinhardt and Astor Piazzolla. More Schmitt instrumentals followed: “Charlie,” a jaunty two-beat hand-clapper inspired by Chaplin, and a stunning ballad dedicated to his spouse, “Lovely Wife.” 

Then, Stefi Schmitt emerged to sing her father’s “Tribute to Django,” along with “Dark Eyes” in French (“Tes yeux noirs”); at 17, she reminds one of a 1960s Italian tween sensation, Piccola Pupa. After the 1921 jam number, “Sheik of Araby,” the 8-year-old Stenli took the stage, playing a small guitar — and not missing a note — and singing the lyrics to “Nuages” as well as a tango dedicated to her father. The two young ladies were, to use a word I don’t find myself employing very often in jazz reviews, adorable. 

There was time for three more tunes — as always, it’s a long full set. Ludovic Beier produced his accordina, a rather amazing device that looks like a button accordion and a harmonica somehow had a baby girl of their own, for “Around Toots,” his dedication to the late Belgian multi-instrumentalist Toots Thielemans. Then another luxurious ballad, Mr. Blanchard’s “Nocturne,” found the violin master plucking a chorus pizzicato. The five-piece ensemble ended with the expected fast and furious finale, “Balkanic Dance,” also by Mr. Blanchard.

It was an immensely satisfying set — and maybe it seemed even more so since I haven’t heard any such “jazz manouche” since before the pandemic. We all left Birdland marveling about how much Django Reinhardt was able to give us, despite having only 43 years and eight usable fingers to work with.

The New York Sun

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