LP Review: Stéphane Grappelli Ensemble (NDR 60 Years Jazz Edition)

Stéphane Grappelli Ensemble
(Moosicus Records N1303-1. NDR 60 Years Jazz Edition. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

Stéphane Grappelli is one of the most recorded violinists of all time, and certainly the most recorded one in jazz. However, his discography has an odd gap. From the late 1940s to the mid 1960s the catalogue would seem to indicate that he hardly set foot in a recording studio. There are various theories as to why this might be. Some maintain he was recovering from the death of his long time musical partner Django Reinhardt, others that he was trying to come to terms with the electronic amplification of instruments which would swamp his violin, or that he spent years woodshedding to perfect his technique. Whatever the explanation, this set from May 1957 is a genuine collector’s item.

It is a double LP, a deeply enjoyable one, released by the enterprising German record label Moosicus and continuing their outstanding series of albums drawn from the vaults of Hamburg’s NDR public radio station (Norddeutscher Rundfunk). None of these recordings have seen the light of day since their original broadcast and they represent a treasure horde to make a jazz fan’s mouth water. They also have the virtue of having been superbly recorded at the time, and are being revived now in truly state of the art releases. Moosicus are using heavy, pristine vinyl, beautifully pressed and remastered. (And there are CD versions, too, if you swing that way.)

For these sessions at NDR’s Studio 1, Grappelli is accompanied by a rhythm section which is an interesting one, to say the least. The pianist is Maurice Vander, an adroit Frenchman who collaborated with Django Reinhardt just before Django died in 1953 and had a long association with the French singer Claude Nougaro. On upright bass is Hans Last, a name which won’t raise any eyebrows until you realise that this talented young player later anglicised his first name to James and became the towering titan of easy listening. With some hundred million records sold, mostly pop hits arranged for a big band, it is easy to dismiss ‘Hansi’ as some kind of vastly bland joke. But his performance here is excellent and it isn’t surprising to learn that from 1950 to 1952 he was voted the country’s best bass player in the German jazz polls, three years running. The drummer and percussionist in the quartet is Rolf Ahrens who would later play with such European jazz luminaries as Klaus Doldinger before settling in as the long serving drummer for Bert Kaempfert — easy listening seems to have been the fate of German jazz virtuosos in the 1960s.

But the star here is Grappelli and he demonstrates it decisively. If the theory that he suspended recording because he was perfecting his technique is true, then he has achieved that mastery by now. Just listen to the luscious legato and lightning runs on It Might as Well Be Spring where he is wringing sweetness from the strings; it is pointed, energetic and gorgeous. Maurice Vander is also notable here with his chiming piano providing scales and trills. Hambourg Souvenir is a Vander composition and has an appropriately urban hipness, with Grappelli playing groovy angular lines and Ahrens providing soft propulsion and keeping impeccable time, then intertwining percussively with the violin to great effect. It’s also a showcase for Last’s splendidly sonorous plucking — I swear I’ll never look at a copy of Non-Stop Dancing with the same dismissive sneer.

Grappelli’s playing also has a remarkable vocal quality. St Louis Blues begins with him conjuring from his strings what sounds like a field holler. This deeply rural blues feel then alternates with hot boogie-woogie bowing before developing into bebop intricacies. Its instructive to discover that Grappelli, with his roots in 1930s swing, had so comprehensively absorbed the techniques of modern jazz. Vander also rises to the occasion here, providing a streaming flourish of piano notes.

Elsewhere, Autumn In New York is soulful and sweet and old fashioned in the best way while Jeepers Creepers provides jazz that is hot and swings with Grappelli’s playing breathtakingly fluid and nimble. Meanwhile, the ravishing Blue Moon provides his violin with the opportunity for some puckish pizzicato.

This is an immensely enjoyable album. Grappelli is on superb form throughout and the listener begins to realise that these recordings are really quite valuable, catching him in his absolute prime, and in a regrettably under-documented period. The audiophile quality sound doesn’t hurt, either. It’s breathtaking. These tapes are as fresh as yesterday — no, make that today.

This series is one of the most exciting projects in jazz at the moment and I can hardly wait to see what Moosicus retrieves from the NDR archives next.

Categories: miscellaneous

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