Californian-born, New Orleans-based Evan Christopher, just turned 40, is a very fine jazz clarinettist indeed . He plays in the lineage of players he reveres, the early masters of the instrument in jazz, Sidney Bechet, and Ellington’s clarinettist Barney Bigard, who were both Creoles born in New Orleans.
Christopher’s “Django a la Creole” project takes as one of its main musical jumping-off points the recording session in April 1939 in Paris when three visiting members of the Ellington band – Bigard, Rex Stewart, and bassist Billy Taylor Sr. – recorded a few tracks with Django Reinhardt. This confluence of cultures, of rhythms, of races, of influences is a fascinating topic. Christopher talks about it entertainingly, knowledgeably and with passion, and yet with modesty.
But in the end its about the music, and the four piece band assembled here didn’t disappoint. Christopher produces a great sound, mainly plays acoustically, but raises the temperature cleverly and judiciously, when necessary, by stepping under a suspended microphone. And his band were expert, sympathetic, and on-the-button, right from the opening Django Reinhardt composition Douce Ambiance .
The “engine room,” as Christopher described him, is Briton Dave Kelbie on rhythm guitar. Kelbie is one of the first-call rhythm guitarists for gypsy jazz in Europe. The bassist is the Melbourne-born Paris-based Sebastian Girardot. He switches effortlessly from gipsy style slap bass to more conventional jazz bass with ease. His gentle solo on Rex Stewart’s “Solid Old Man” was compelling.
I also found myself captivated by Sydney-born David Blenkhorn ‘s electric guitar. He has absorbed the language of Django Reinhardt, but, with Kelbie alongside, can create very different moods: Haitian rumbas, or a subtle Brazilian bossa opening to “Songe d’Automne. ” He also showed leanings towards Wes Montgomery in a joyous and scarily fast “Jubilee.” It was a joy to catch his delicately voiced comping under Christopher playing gently in the throat register of the clarinet in “Nuages.” Call it evanescence as Evan-essence, beautiful, on the boundaries of silence. The audience were enthralled.
Christopher chooses to play the Albert or “simple system” clarinet, rather than the Boehm system. For those who need to know, it’s a 1940’s Selmer, found for him by one of his mentors Kenny Davern. Playing this instrument is in part a gesture of reverence to Bechet and Bigard, the masters of the clarinet in jazz before Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw took the instrument in a very different direction. But it doesn’t just look authentic, it produces absolutely right sound for this music.
This was an evening of very civilized chamber jazz expertly played, and much appreciated by a virtually full house at Pizza on the Park.
The same group will next be back in London for a concert in the rather larger Bloomsbury Theatre on Saturday June 5th. Tel 020 7388 8822.