|Don Vappie, Sébastien Girardot, Evan Chistopher, Dave Kelbie|
Evan Christopher’s Django À La Creole
(Quecumbar, Battersea. 9th March 2014. First night of two. Review by Alyn Shipton)
If there is a better living exponent of the New Orleans Creole clarinet style than Evan Christopher, then it’s a discovery I have yet to make. He has the big, woody tone of a Bechet, the control of glissandi of a Bigard, the filigree decorative skills of an Albert Nicholas, the warmth of a Jimmie Noone, and the fire of an Ed Hall. And yet, he always sounds like himself. On pieces such as Jubilee or One for the Duke he proved his credentials as a peerless performer in this idiom. The Quecumbar gig was the UK launch of the third album by the band Django À La Creole, which takes the common ground between traditional New Orleans music and Django’s manouche guitar as its starting point.
The summit meeting between Bigard and Django Reinhardt in May 1939 is a good launch pad for understanding the development of this group’s music. Two of the tracks from that session were included in this concert, a feature for bassist Sébastien Girardot “Solid Old Man” and a blistering solo vehicle for Christopher “I Know That You Know”. On previous tours, the Australian guitarist David Blenkhorn has assumed the Django role, with just enough of Reinhardt’s plangent acoustic sound combined with a fleeter amplified guitar tone to evoke early ‘50s Django. For this brief UK visit, his place has been taken by the New Orleans string specialist Don Vappie.
As a result the group is slightly differently balanced from its earlier incarnation. Vappie is a fine guitar soloist with a post-Charlie Christian vocabulary, but his forays into the Reinhardt area sounded rather like latterday Al Casey (the ex-Fats Waller guitarist who heard Django in New York and changed his style accordingly). The overall results are definitely more Bourbon Street than Montmartre. That’s not a bad thing, and Vappie’s vocal reinterpretation of the Creole Song “Salée Dame”, complete with banjo solo, and with Christopher nodding in the direction of Albert Nicholas, was a joy. Rhythm guitarist Dave Kelbie and Girardot set up an infectiously lilting backing, A vocal version of “Buddy Bolden Blues” would also have gone down well in the Crescent City, not least for Christopher’s complete avoidance of cliché. He is a study in concentration when he plays, but the results are simply brilliant. His control of dynamics, nuance and tone are extraordinary, and he projects this onto the group, notably in a version of “Riverboat Shuffle” that included intricate unison passages with Vappie and sharp contrasts in volume between one section and the next.
The band has hit upon a winning formula, and sustained it through a major change in personnel. Its eponymous theme, a reworking of Reinhardt’s “Improvisation No, 3”, brings the Latin Creole lilt together with Reinhardt’s melodic gift. The most attractive, and unexpected, success of the evening was “Tropical Moon” from Sidney Bechet’s unusual Haitian Orchestra session of 1939. The original pieces by this quintet were by no means great records, but Evan Christopher’s lyrical exploration of this song showed the wonderful depth of music lurking in those largely forgotten 78s.