Pearl Django: Adding to the gypsy jazz lexicon

Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2009

Although the name Django Reinhardt might not be immediately familiar to American audiences, many music lovers can probably call to mind the unique sound that Reinhardt and his band made famous: Imagine what you might have heard while strolling the streets of Paris in the 1930s and you should come pretty close.

Reinhardt, an extremely influential Gypsy guitarist who lived outside Paris, brought together a unique combination of musical influences, including Eastern European melodies from the Rom culture, the French musette style and the American jazz and swing of the 1930s. But whereas American jazz of that time featured brass-based big bands (Count Basie, Duke Ellington), Reinhardt's take was string-based and drummerless, driven by guitar and violin and backed by percussive rhythm guitars, giving the music a totally different sound.

"It was completely original. There was nothing like it before," said Michael Gray of Pearl Django, one of this year's Jazz and Classic's guests.

Reinhardt's band, The Quintette of the Hot Club of France, which formed in 1933 in Paris and included famed violinist Stéphane Grappelli, is viewed by some historians as the greatest European jazz band in history. Gypsy jazz, or jazz manouche as its called in France, is also sometimes referred to as Hot Club jazz, after the band that made it famous.

Gypsy jazz is the inspiration for Seattle-based Pearl Django, but the band has interpreted that tradition in their own way. They perform Saturday at 5 p.m. at UAS Egan Lecture Hall and again as part of the "Putting on the Ritz" series at 8 p.m. in the same venue. Gray said the band has increasingly branched out to push the limits of the genre, and add to a growing body of original work.

"We're trying to stretch the boundaries a little bit and add to the lexicon and make the Hot Club music tent a little bigger," Gray said.

The band, which formed in 1994, has released nine CDs and is working on their tenth. Original songs have made up around half of the past four or five releases, Gray said, adding that all five band members compose songs. Other band members are Neil Andersson and Ryan Hoffman on guitar, David Lange on accordion (also the band's recording engineer) and Rick Leppanen on upright bass.

Pearl Django is widely recognized for their mastery of and creativity with the Gypsy jazz genre, and has traveled extensively with their music. Performances include the Reinhardt festivals in Samois sur Seine and Nantes, France. Gray said he was surprised by the reaction the band elicited from those on Reinhardt's home turf, especially given that the Gypsy culture is understandably protective of their traditions.

"We were alternately really proud and astonished that they liked our take on it," he said.

Gray lived in Alaska for 15 years, including a brief residence in Juneau in the mid-1970s; he played at the very first Alaska Folk Festival in 1975. He first came to Alaska as a homesteader, and also spent time in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and said he still has great fondness for the state.

"I try to (come) back as often as I can," he said.

Lucky for the band, the manouche style of jazz is undergoing a renaissance in the U.S., Gray said. He attributing its popularity in part to its wide-ranging appeal.

"Its nice in the sense that it really does strike a chord with a lot of people," Gray said. "And it is an all-ages thing. Not just for jazz-o-philes."

Fans of bluegrass and old-time, also string based genres, are often attracted to the Gypsy jazz genre, as well as anyone who loves to dance, Gray said.

"Its elegant without being snooty. Its happy without being mindlessly cheery."

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