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Rez Abassi's
Django-shift

by Robin Kidson

 

 

 

Rez Abassi

 

Until the late sixties, jazz at its highest level was an all-American affair. Of course, musicians from other countries played jazz but the technical masters, the innovators, the stars were almost exclusively American. There were some exceptions, the greatest of which, arguably, came in the unlikely form of a Belgian born, French speaking Romani guitarist with only two working fingers on his left hand – Django Reinhardt, who, in a relatively short life became the acknowledged master of the jazz guitar. Mercer Ellington described him as “the most creative jazz musician to originate anywhere outside the USA”. “It was upsetting to hear a man who was a foreigner swing like that!” said Doc Cheatham.

Django Reinhardt died in 1953 but his legacy lives on and many of today’s jazz (and rock) guitarists owe him some sort of debt. And now, one of the most interesting of contemporary guitarists, Rez Abbasi, has released a whole album dedicated to Reinhardt’s music. It’s called Django-shift and it’s out now on the ever excellent Whirlwind label. More of Django-shift later but, first, it’s worth taking a closer look at the extraordinary life and work of the master himself.

Jean Baptiste (Django) Reinhardt was born in 1910 in a caravan in the Belgian town of Liverchies near the French border. (“Django” is a Romani dialect name for “Jean”). His father was an entertainer and musician in travelling shows. Django learned to play both violin and guitar and became something of a child prodigy good enough to perform in Parisian cafés and music halls from a very early age. Living in Romani encampments on the outskirts of Paris, he developed such a Django Reinhardtreputation on guitar in his late teens that British bandleader, Jack Hylton, signed him up to play with his band in England. However, just before he was due to travel to London in 1928, the caravan in which he was living with his wife caught fire. Django was seriously injured and, at one time, it looked like his leg might have to be amputated. A less serious injury but one potentially ruinous to his burgeoning career was to his left, fretting hand. Two fingers were crippled leaving him with only the remaining two as usable. Determined not to let this disability prevent him playing the guitar, he spent the next two years teaching himself how to play again developing an innovative and dazzling technique which more than compensated for his physical limitations.

 

Django Reinhardt

 

Django began playing again in the early 1930s utilising his new skills and becoming increasingly influenced by the jazz of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and guitarist Eddie Lang. In 1931, he met Stéphane Grappelli, a French pianist and violinist also interested in jazz and they started playing together. At around the same time, a group of French students formed the Hot Club de France to promote jazz, particularly the New Orleans traditional “hot” variety. In 1934, the Club started presenting concerts featuring a new group formed by Grappelli and Reinhardt which became known as the Quintette du Hot Club de France. The Hot Club QuintetteQuintette’s line up of violin (Grappelli), lead guitar (Reinhardt), two rhythm guitars and bass was revolutionary. The music, too, was something new – jazz with a distinctive European feel, driven by the astonishing virtuosity of Grappelli and Reinhardt.

Between 1934 and the outbreak of war in 1939, the Quintette toured and recorded prolifically, sometimes with visiting American jazz musicians. Its music became internationally popular and Django Reinhardt became a bona fide star. Even in America, which had become resistant to the idea that any non-American could play proper jazz, he was recognised as something special – an innovator on his instrument to be enjoyed, studied and eventually copied. A whole generation of US guitarists including the likes of Charlie Byrd and Barney Kessel have testified to his influence.

The music he played introduced a new palette to jazz with a range of influences from Romani folk songs to European light classical music, Spanish flamenco, and French chanson. His technique was breathtaking. According to Whitney Balliett, he “turned the songs he played inside out, decorating them with his winging vibrato, his pouring runs and glisses, his weaving and ducking single-note lines, and his sudden chordal tremolos and off-beat explosions. All these sounds were controlled by his adventurous rhythmic sense.”

 

Here is some old film of Django playing J'attendrai Swing with Grappelli and the Quintette in 1939, illustrating his two-fingered technique on the frets.

 

 

 

Django was touring with the Quintette in England at the outbreak of war in 1939. Grappelli stayed in England but Django returned to France where he survived the war, playing, recording, wandering, always somehow keeping clear of the Germans. After the war, he was reunited with Grappelli and recorded with a revived Quintette. In 1946, he briefly toured in America with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra but his reception was disappointing. Back in France, he experimented with amplification and bop. He died of a stroke in Fontainebleau in France in 1953 at the age of only 43.

 

A post-war recording of Django in all his unadorned glory playing St. Louis Blues.

 

 


 
Django Reinhardt’s fame as a performer is well established. What is less well known is that he was also a prolific composer and it is this facet of his talent that Rez Abbasi explores in Django-shift. He plays versions of seven Reinhardt compositions on the album  plus two numbers which Django often played but did not write. But if hard core fans are expecting Django pieces to be played like Django, then they are going to be disappointed for Abbasi has done something much more interesting. His objective, as set out in the liner notes is:  

“... to recontextualise Django’s music in a personal way, as opposed to presenting it in a conventional style. My aim was to honour Django’s compositional character while infusing it with my own compositional voice. Thus I kept his melodies intact, utilising them to serve as the foundational identity for each piece. From there, I had the freedom to add my own voice through harmonic content, rhythmical cadences, meter changes, textural development as well as improvisation. I also composed introductions, transitions, solo sections, and applied a diversity of grooves.”

 

Here's a video trailer for the album.

 

 


Rez Abassi Django Shift Band

 

Abbasi plays fretted and fretless acoustic guitars throughout and is accompanied by Neil Alexander on organ, electronics and synthesisers, and Michael Sarin on drums. Quintette du Hot Club de France it is not! Django-shift is 55 year old Abbasi’s 15th album as a leader so he is confident and experienced enough to allow his colleagues their head. Neil Alexander, in particular, is given plenty of space to shine, and one of the many appealing features of the album is the contrast between his sometimes otherworldly electronic sounds and Abbasi’s acoustic guitar.

Rez Abbasi’s approach is clear right from the very first track of the album, an arrangement of Django’s Diminishing. The theme is played relatively straight, but is then followed by solos, riffs and improvisations which are a long way from anything Django might have envisaged. The rhythms are complex and there is an engaging spikiness to the piece. It’s not surprising to learn that, when working on Django-shift, Abbasi was also studying the music of Thelonious Monk, and there is something very Monkian about Diminishing.

Although living and working in the US, Abbasi was actually born in Karachi. He moved to America with his family when he was four. An important influence on much of his work has been the music of the sub-continent and he has worked extensively with other US jazz musicians of Indian or Pakistani heritage such as Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer. That Indian influence comes into play on the second track of Django-shift, Swing 42. As with Diminishing, the beat is intricate, driven along by Michael Sarin’s drumming, and changes as the piece develops. It includes rock beats and a rhythm derived from the Carnatic music of Southern India. The solo work by Abbasi and Alexander is particularly but attractively free. 

 

 

 

It is even freer in this live version from January 2019

 

 


Heavy Artillery has a simpler and stronger beat with a very bluesy vibe. Alexander’s solo moves through various phases and is full of ideas. Abbasi’s solo has a Spanish tinge and gradually hits a most compelling groove.

Django’s Castle is a wistful ballad on which Abbasi plays a fretless guitar. This has a beguiling sound, almost like a sitar at times. Beguiling sounds of an electronic but still warm nature also emerge from Alexander’s keyboards. The whole piece is kept together by Sarin’s soft, unobtrusive drumming.

 

Here is an impressionistic video of Django’s Castle which nicely captures the spirit of the piece.

 

 

 

 

Anniversary Song is one of the non-Django compositions on the album. It was originally written by the nineteenth century Romaniancomposer, Ion Ivanovici and was one of Django’s favourite tunes. Abbasi gives it a very contemporary makeover with, once again, a complex and changing rhythm. “I wanted to capture the forward momentum of classic swing”, says Abbasi, “but not with a straightfour-to-the-floor feel”. Even so, a foot tapping groove is generated. All through the album, Abbasi demonstrates his complete mastery of the guitar but he excels himself on Anniversary Song with some quite Rez Abassi Django Shift albumbreathtaking virtuosic playing.

More virtuosity is shown by all three musicians on Cavalerie which begins on a gentle dreamy shuffle but soon shifts to a swinging, contagious beat. Solos from Abbasi and Alexander sound like conversations which move seamlessly from one topic to another. Douce Ambiance was played by Django as an upbeat, very French sounding foot tapper. Abbasi turns it into a ballad with touches of both Spain and the blues. Hungaria is a particularly catchy fast tempo Django tune which Abbasi plays relatively straight albeit with some characteristic rhythmic complexities. Michael Sarin takes a short drum solo.

The best is left to last. The final track is Kurt Weill’s September Song, another favourite of Django. Alexander sets up an atmospheric electronic wash – “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” - against which Abbasi plays the most splendid fretless guitar. He sticks pretty close to the familiar tune but adorns it with all sorts of frills and trills, weaving in and out of the notes, teasing, swirling, with just a touch of the East, achieving a sort of heartfelt intensity. It is a most satisfying reworking of an old standard.

Rez Abbasi says that “approaching Django’s music from the mindset of a composer helped me to resonate with his compositions on a profound level. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that when playing this music with the trio, it feels like our own”. What Abbasi has done is not pastiche or impersonation and it’s more than just an update for a contemporary audience; it’s nothing less than a comprehensive taking apart of Django’s compositions then a putting back together with added bits. The result is far more Abbasi than Reinhardt. That’s not a criticism, far from it, for Abbasi has achieved something joyous, original and utterly absorbing, made and played with consummate skill by all concerned. It is also a marvellous advertisement for Django Reinhardt’s music, reminding the listener of what a great tunesmith he was and making us want to return, and appreciate even more, the originals. Django would have loved it. 

 

Click here for Rez Abbasi’s website. Click here for details and samples of the album.

 

Rez Abassi

 

 

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