Chasing Django

Chico treated to rare meeting of guitar greats headed by the Bireli Lagrene Gipsy Project

Bireli Lagrene Gipsy Project
(w/ Chris Thile & Mike Marshall)
Laxson Auditorium
Wed., March 5th 7:30 p.m.

I reached renowned gypsy jazz guitarist Bireli Lagrene by phone at his home in Paris (he no longer lives in a caravan, contrary to what some might think, and he hasn’t for 16 years). Lagrene begins his upcoming U.S. tour with his Django Reinhardt tribute band, the Bireli Lagrene Gipsy Project, on March 5, with Chico as their first stop. This will be Lagrene’s first visit to Chico.

Opening for Lagrene’s quintet is the duo of 20-year-old mandolin whiz Chris Thile of Nickel Creek fame and ex-David Grisman mandolinist Mike Marshall—though Thile and Marshall are so talented that one barely gets away with saying that they are openers! Lagrene has never met either one, and the Chico concert, sponsored by Chico Performances, is the only time that Lagrene’s tour intersects with the touring schedule of Thile and Marshall. We are, to say the least, very fortunate that all seven of these amazingly talented and entertaining musicians are on the same bill here in little old Chico.

Bireli Lagrene began playing the guitar at age 4 (young even by Gypsy standards) and playing jazz at the ripe old age of 7. He was born in the Alsace region of France in 1966 and, though he never met the legendary Django Reinhardt, who died in 1953, he grew up playing Reinhardt’s music. It was what one did still at that time, growing up in a Gypsy community. It also didn’t hurt that Lagrene’s father, Fiso Lagrene, was a widely known guitarist in France.

Lagrene recorded his first album, Routes to Django, when he was just 13 years old. It was in this same year, 1980, when Lagrene toured internationally with violinist Stephane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt’s former musical collaborator and co-leader of their swingin’ Quintet of the Hot Club of France. Lagrene amazed listeners with his outstanding playing at such a young age.

He shared a story with me about the time Babik Reinhardt, Django’s son, also a guitar player, came to hear him play when he was 14. At the time, there were many young Django imitators, each one purported to be “the next Django,” so Babik didn’t have high hopes for Bireli since he had already been disappointed by so many others he had heard. As it turned out, Babik was very impressed with Lagrene’s proficiency and similarity to Django’s style, and he and Lagrene became good friends and ended up playing gigs together until Babik’s death in 2001.

Lagrene has recorded or toured with many fabulous players—Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Larry Coryell, Stanley Clarke, Billy Cobham, Danilo Perez, Jaco Pastorius—and not always playing Django-style jazz.

He got electric and fusiony for a while, something that Babik Reinhardt actually encouraged because he was glad to see Lagrene trying to find his own voice aside from being such a stunning Django Reinhardt protégé-of-sorts.

But Bireli Lagrene has been back to his roots for a while now. His last two albums, Gypsy Project (2001) and Gipsy Project and Friends (2002), have Django written all over them. As one reviewer put it, “Gypsy Project is a pageant of rhythm so ebullient that you have to remind yourself there is no drummer, just amazing [rhythm guitar] strumming … On this foundation, Bireli (as Django did before him) builds toward a perfect state of swing. … Lagrene easily matches the fire and facility of his idol” (Keith Spore,

Gipsy Project and Friends is yet more infectious, sunny, wonderful Django-by-Bireli: “Djangology,” “Babik,” “Minor Swing,” with a few slower pieces included, like the lovely “Bei Dir War Es Immer So Schon.” Lagrene says he has one more Gypsy project to go, a live CD and DVD, featuring a number of different guitarists, likely to be called The Ultimate Gipsy Project (or thereabouts), due to be out this summer. And then the future is open.

“I have the year ahead of me planned out, but who knows after that? I go with the flow.”

But we do know that this incredible musician and extremely likeable man who doesn’t read music (“I don’t have time for that! … I listen with my ear”) doesn’t seek fame (“Playing for fame is not my métier; I do it because I enjoy it. I am not a businessman; I just need enough money to pay my bills”) and does believe in the importance of being friends with the people he plays music with (“I have to spend time on the tour bus with them, and besides, it makes the music better”).

He is going to perform here with band mates Florin Niculescu on violin, cousin Holzmano Lagrene and Hono Winterstein on rhythm guitars, and Diego Imbert on bass. Coupled with Thile and Marshall, it really is a show not to be missed, and not to be repeated anytime soon that I can tell! In other words, this may just be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so you know what that means …