(Ronnie Scott’s. 12th September 2012. Review by Rod Fogg )
Born in 1966, of European gypsy origin, Biréli Lagrène was already being described as a prodigy when aged of eight. By the age of 14 he had released his first album, the live Routes to Django, steeped in the repertoire and style of the great Django Reinhardt and his gipsy successors. There followed many albums in similar style, but by 1986 Lagrene was in America recording jazz fusion with Jaco Pastorius.
He returned to gipsy jazz in 1998, collaborating with Stochelo Rosenberg and Angelo Debarre, and again in 2001 with The Gipsy Project. Since then he has flitted between the open plains of contemporary jazz and the more stylistically corralled gipsy style.
Visitors to Ronnie Scott’s last Tuesday hoping to hear the gipsy side of this mercurial character would have been disappointed – but only if they were without ears. On stage with Biréli were Franck Wolf on soprano and tenor saxophones, Jean Marc Robin on drums and Jean-Yves Jung on Hammond organ – three musicians of the highest calibre. In classic “organ trio” style bass duties were handled by the organist’s left hand, while the right hand comped chords for accompaniment or soloed freely when required – a feat of co-ordination that leaves mere mortals in awe.
The choice of material was reminiscent of the hard bop trios and quartets of the 1950s/60s – funky blues, grooving two chord jams; and at least two tracks based on the classic Rhythm Changes, one of which concluded with the Sonny Rollins tune Oleo played at breakneck speed. The fact that the music was mostly straightforward harmonically encouraged the soloists to stretch out and we were treated to the most engrossing, exciting, expressive jazz.
As for Biréli himself, the prodigy turned into a genius many years ago. He is ferociously fast, but if he were only fast, his playing would be less extraordinary. As it is, he is one of the most expressive guitarists I have ever heard – he’s up there with McLaughlin, Metheny, and the other contemporary greats.
Over the course of a solo he is continually inventive, telling his story with occasional moments of humour as he slips into cascades of harmonics or deliberately chokes off the notes into flurries of clicks and squawks on his electric guitar. He also leads the band with modesty, humour and a self-deprecating style that I found endearing; sometimes hesitant about which piece to play next, he let the music speak for the band and hardly introduced any tunes all night.
He’s also eclectic – venturing at times far beyond the confines of jazz and into a jazz/classical crossover. Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid formed the basis of one piece and the finale was a lightning fast performance of a piece – un-named – built on rapidly evolving arpeggios in the style of a toccata and played in unison. The guitar solo was breathtaking, fast, relentless – yet inventive – which sums up the whole night. Biréli Lagrène has to be one of the most remarkable guitar players on this planet.