This Year’s Django Reinhardt Fest Is a Family Affair, and It’s Très Magnifique

While I have heard editions of the Django Reinhardt Festival group that played louder, faster, and more aggressively, I don’t think I’ve ever heard better music than that produced by Dorado Schmitt and Family.

Howard Melton
At Birdland during the 24th Django Reinhardt Festival. Howard Melton

24th Annual Django Reinhardt Festival
Featuring Dorado Schmitt and Family
Through November 19

To paraphrase Leonard Bernstein from one of his lectures, “The French language is smooth and flowing, with almost no abrupt emphasis, and this easy, liquid style showed itself in French music.” He was talking about the language and its relationship with folk songs and classical works, but the Maestro was a tireless supporter of jazz as well. 

Maybe the opening of the Thursday set of the 2023 Django Reinhardt Festival was characteristically French: If we regard French music as being more relaxed and less emphatic than, say, German music, then the first sound heard on the early set was tres francais, indeed. Instead of a musical note, we heard the voice of Birdland’s majordomo, Gianni Valenti, asking the house if anybody had seen the band’s rhythm guitarist, Francko Mehrstein, who evidently was so enjoying his siesta before the performance that he didn’t make the gig in time. 

No matter: Francko soon materialized and the show was under way.  Some years, the Django Festival band is an all-star amalgamation, and in some aspects, the music ends up seeming more like an Olympic competition, in which everybody is trying to play faster or more virtuosically than everybody else, than a concert. 

Not so this year. For 2023, the artists seem to be thinking less about outplaying each other, like a collective of soloists, than playing together, like an actual band. This is not least because the Django ensemble this year is an actual family: The patriarch, Dorado Schmitt, 66, is best known as a guitarist but played violin most of the evening, and his two sons, Samson, and Amati, are the principal guitar soloists. They are joined by cousins Francko Mehrstein on rhythm guitar and Gino Roman on bass. Two non-relations complete the group: the exceptional Dutch pianist Peter Beets, and the outstanding guest star Ken Peplowski on clarinet.

As usual, the evening included only two tunes from Django’s actual repertory, “Nuages” early in the show and the romping “Minor Swing” at the end. The originals offered were very much in the Quintette of the Hot Club of France style, especially with the line-up of three guitars, bass, and violin, occasionally joined by piano and clarinet.

As with Reinhardt’s compositions, the group’s originals sounded resolutely, but almost existentially, French: They opened with “Attitude Manouche,” featuring the three guitars plus bass, then Schmitt Pere joined on “Tchavolo Swing,” named for his cousin Tchavolo Schmitt — yes, also a guitar star. They followed with a third original, named for the patriarch himself, “El Dorado.”  

The driving, pumping rhythm of the first two suggested Paris to me — at least, the Paris of my dreams, as I’ve never been there. The hard swinging here mirrors the intensity of New York or London, but in a distinctly gallic fashion. Then the third had a relaxed, tropical feel to it, which made me picture palm trees on the beach at the French Riviera — and, as Duke Ellington would say, “the well-appointed bikinis” that go with them.

Mr. Beets joined the quintet for Reinhardt’s theme song, “Nuages,” the national anthem of Romany Manouche jazz and mother’s milk to the extended Schmitt family. “Nuages” somehow ended with the fire alarm going off in the kitchen; it turned out to be a false alarm, but the various Schmitts handily incorporated it into the coda of the song.  

As the alarms died down, Ken Peplowski took the stage with one of the one-liners that are almost as celebrated as his superlative playing, “You can’t say I don’t know how to make an entrance.” The Cleveland-born reed player made the bandstand truly international with the mock-Asian “China Boy” and the legitimately Mexican “Besame Mucho.” He fairly soared over both, using mostly the piano and bass for accompaniment, with various Schmitts pumping away on their macaferris. 

Mr. Beets then got the most to play on “You Look Good To Me,” from the Oscar Peterson songbook, followed by mostly originals like “Stenli,” during which all four guitars were playing at several points. Amati Schmitt took the stage for two of his own tunes, “La Lumière De Dieu” and “Minor Schmitt,” rendered with Messrs. Mehrstein and Roman.

“Minor Swing” — which might be deemed Django’s top Djam session tune — was the expected finale. The entire ensemble was on stage, including Messrs. Beets and Peplowski, who soloed. The clarinetist generated so much heat and energy that after two choruses, Dorado signaled him to take a third. 

I have heard editions of the Django Reinhardt Festival group that played louder, faster, and more aggressively, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard better music. The festival’s 24th annual edition at Birdland is a major triumph — and I can already say I expect the ceremonial 25th to be even better. 

The New York Sun

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