Lollo Meier is gyspy jazz guitarist from the Netherlands. He is touring the UK from 24th June to 1st August this year. Unfortunately work committments will prevent me from seeing him but I strongly recommend catching the tour if you can. I heard about him from Dave Kelbie when Dave was touring with Angelo Debarre and I bought Lollo Meier’s CD ‘Hondarribia’ from Dave’s Lejazzetal website. Lollo Meier’s playing is strongly in the Django tradition but lies to the lyrical end of the spectrum. The CD features the clarinetist André Donni as co-lead instrument and the all the music is wonderful.
I was lucky enough to see Bireli Lagrene when he was a teenager. I was a student in London at the time and treked across the city to the backroom of a pub in Putney where I heard the most amazing guitar playing I had ever listened to. Since then I haven’t had a chance to see Bireli again, he was supposed to tour the UK a couple of years ago but had to cancel due to an illness. So I looked for the next best thing and found a couple of DVDs of recent concerts:
Live in Paris – this is a DVD of a concert at a jazz club in Paris featuring Bireli’s current quartet, the one on the Move CD with Franck Wolf on saxophones, Hono Winterstein (my current rhythm guitar hero) and Diego Imbert on double bass. The concert starts with Bireli on acoustic guitar and the quartet is really cooking, the music is great and there is some jaw-dropping guitar playing especially on the (very) up-tempo version of Cherokee. The sound quality on the DVD is very good and the filming is great without too much rapid cutting between different views. Later in the concert Bireli picks up his electric guitar and I have to confess that I don’t like the sound of standard electric jazz guitar. The flat wound strings and the strong mid-range bias of the sound make it all sound muddy to me and I miss the sparkling upper harmonics that sing out from the acoustic guitar. I wouldn’t pick ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ as an encore number either but that’s just a question of taste. The first half of the DVD is fabulous and easily justifies the purchase.
Bireli Lagrene and Friends – this is a DVD at the Vienne jazz festival and was recorded a couple of years before the Live In Paris disc. The band is largely the original Gypsy Project line-up with the great Florin Niculescu on violin, Homo Winterstein and Thomas Dutronc on rhythm guitars and Diego Imbert on double bass. The first half of the concert is the quintet playing many of the tunes on the Gypsy Project and Gypsy Project and Friends CDs. The live situation seems to spur them on and they are more adventurous in thier soling than on the CDs. The second half of the concert features virtually all the best gypsy jazz guitarists in the world including Angelo Debarre, Stochelo Rosenberg, Tchavolo Schmitt, etc. Usually such guitar fests become a bit much but here they do play well and are disciplined about their soloing. As a bonus there is also footage of Bireli as a young teenager at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Of course I did write a post about the joys of playing without amplifiers a couple of weeks ago and this is now our favourite way to play. Unfortunately many venues have very bad acoustics and noisy audiences so we do have to use amplification on many of our gigs.
Our new Gitane guitars did not come fitted with pickups so we had to decide what sort we wanted to fit. We didn't want to change the natural acoustic properties of the guitars or their appearance so that ruled out any soundhole pickups or ones with control boxes fitted onto the front of the guitar. That left internally mounted microphones and/or piezo pickups mounted in the bridge. We choose Big Tone bridge-mounted piezo pickups because that seems to be standard kit for gypsy jazz guitars (e.g. Dell Arte guitars, the Robin Nolan trio etc.) and because you can get a higher level of amplification without feedback.
These pickups are quite difficult to fit and we were very fortunate to find Ged Green, a Manchester-based luthier, to fit them for us. He tells us that you have to saw the top off the wooden bridge, rout a cavity for the pickup, stick the pickup in with epoxy resin glue and put the top back on the bridge, and then you have to run the cable into the body and out through a strap button jack socket. Rather him than us! He has done a wonderful job on both guitars and they sound good through our amplifiers. The only quirk is some acoustic feedback from the tailpiece which is easily solved by a piece of felt between that and the body.
There are many great gypsy jazz guitarists out there and I am still discovering ones that I haven’t heard. I am sure that I should have heard of Tchavolo Schmitt before this year but I hadn’t. That may be because he has never been prolific in releasing CDs and he didn’t appear on his debut CD until 2000 when he was 46 years old. I don’t have any other sources of information apart from the CD liner notes but it would appear that he has always played gypsy jazz guitar in the true Django tradition and has earned a meagre living playing in bars with little interest in releasing recodings or becoming more well known, though he was part of the Hot Club Da Sinti in the late 70s/early 80s
Tchavolo has 4 CDs that are currently available – Alors Voila from 2000, Memories of Django (with Angelo Debarre) from 2004, Loutcha from 2005, and Mili Familia which I haven’t yet managed to buy. They are all great CDs and well worth a listen. Tchavolo plays very much in the pure Django style with no modern harmonic devices and really swings on all the tunes he plays. The Alors Voila CD is available in an enhanced version which has three short video clips. One of these is a guitar duet with Romane on the other guitar and I often watch it when I need a bit of playing inspiration – it is fantastic (the file on the CD is effort.mpg).
Yesterday we played a gig that was essentially providing background music at a summer cocktail party. Although we were playing outside we were on a stone terrace with a short wall around us and some canvas canopies overhead. We had taken our usual electro-acoustic guitars and amplifiers with us but before we unpacked those we tried out our new Gitane guitars without any amplification – it sounded perfect! The guitars were loud enough even outdoors and so we played the whole gig without amplifiers (the double bass player as well). The experience of playing totally acoustically was very refreshing and everyone in the band really enjoyed it – we have resolved to find more gigs where we can do this.
Later we played another gig in a noisy wine bar and had to use our old guitars and amplifiers. When we first picked up the guitars they felt very dead and lifeless but with an enthusiastic audience we still enjoyed the gig, though we did find that 4 hours of full-on gypsy jazz playing in a day was a little hard on the fingers.
As soon as I heard Django Reihardt and other gypsy jazz guitarists I wanted to be able to play at least a little like that, and I am sure that just about any guitarist who hears gypsy jazz wants to as well. However the means to learn to play like this is not always readily available, and I speak with many years experience of trying. The biographies of Django Reinhardt and other great gypsy jazz guitarists from France and Belgium suggest that they were born into an environment where music was as much a part of life as eating and drinking and they had opportunities to learn from members of their close social group from an early age. This doesn’t happen to many aspiring gypsy jazz guitarists! A good teacher would be invaluable but again these are rare in many places. Sheffield, where I live, is a conurbation of a million people but I don’t know of any gypsy jazz guitar teachers. Generic jazz guitar methods are of no use at all – they mainly concentrate on scales whereas gypsy jazz is much more centred on arpeggios, they are often based on the premise that the type of jazz you want to play is bebop and they make great play of positional playing using all four fingers. Gypsy jazz, from my observations, is far more concerned with movement up and down the fretboard and most players usually use only their first three fingers when playing solos (and of course Django only used two).
What about specific gypsy jazz books and DVDs? Well there are a number of these available but many of them are dissappointing – I have shelves full of them! I will mention some more of the better ones in future posts but for now I will tell you about the one which I have just discovered and which might really be the solution to a lot of players’ needs – it is Robin Nolan’s Essential Gypsy Jazz Licks Vol 1.
There are many fantastic features about this book. Robin Nolan is a great player who tours all over the world and has many CDs available so we can be assured of his credentials as a gypsy jazz player. However many great players don’t make great teachers but Robin shows in this book that he is one of the exceptions. The book consists of carefully constructed solos over the changes to 5 common gypsy jazz tunes including a major and minor blues. For each tune there are five solos and these build from single note through octaves to chordal soloing. Each solo is made up of classic gypsy jazz licks that are just the sort of thing that every aspiring gypsy jazz guitarist wants to play – they don’t sound like dry technical exercises. The solos are given in ordinary notation and tabulature – no left hand fingerings are given but if you only use 2 or 3 fingers it is easy to work out sensible and consistent fingerings and that process in itself helps to assimilate the licks. The book has a CD with it which has all the solos played through twice, once at a slow speed and once at ‘gig’ speed which is absolutely invaluable. There are also notes about each solo which point out the musical features that make them work which enables you to work out your own licks.
I really can’t recommend this book enough and wish that it has been published twenty years ago – it should be everyone’s first port of call when learning gypsy jazz guitar soloing.
Now that I had (I thought) my new grande bouche gypsy jazz guitar for rhythm playing we needed to get a suitable guitar for Shez to play lead guitar in Djangoism. We went to Hobgoblin Music in Leeds where they have a wide selection of the Gitane guitars, and one by a local maker, and were very patient as we spent a long time trying them. What we found was interesting (to us at least). All the Gitane models we very different to each other even though they all look superficially similar. The grande bouche model had a sweeter, less cutting, sound than the petite bouche models but overall was louder. The difference between the slightly shorter than standard scale of the grand bouche and the long scale of the petite bouches was very noticeable. The neck profile on the petite bouche models was very variable with the DG-255 model having a very shallow profile and the DG-300 John Jorgenson model having a deep profile. Our conclusions from this are that one should try lots of different gyspy jazz guitars before buying one as although they are all of similar shape and construction the features which alter playing comfort can vary considerably.
After a lot of playing Shez decided that he liked the sound of the grand bouche model best. I found that the John Jorgenson model was very comfortable for playing rhythm so we bought that and Shez will use the grand bouche that I bought a couple of weeks ago. This is the reverse of the usual selection of grand and petite bouche models used by almost all gypsy jazz bands but we went with what our ears told us, of course it may turn out that on the bandstand in a noisy venue we might find out why most bands have it the other way round – we will report on live playing as soon as we have the Big Tone pickups fitted.