Photo Credit: Fabiana Toppia Nervi
Django Reinhardt was only 43 when he died and he sometimes lamented in his final months that he might be overlooked by history. Happily, the virtuoso gypsy is hailed as one of the most influential guitarists of all time and his remarkable legacy has been emulated by jazz musicians all over the world and by guitar greats as varied as Les Paul, BB King, Carlos Santana, Chet Atkins, Jimi Hendrix and Willie Nelson.
Among the musicians keeping the cherished Django sound alive today is Italian DARIO NAPOLI, who is bringing the ‘Dario Napoli Modern Manouche Project’ to the UK next month for a tour that includes the closing concert of the Liverpool Royal Philharmonic 2018 ‘Django’s Legacy’ season (on Saturday 24 November). Martin Chilton writes:
Speaking from his home in Cortona, Napoli says he was first “blown away” by Reinhardt’s music when he heard Biréli Lagrène in concert in Vienna. The French guitarist’s interpretations of Reinhardt prompted Napoli to go back and explore the original music of a man born in January 1910, in a caravan on the road in Belgium.
“My favourite Django records are the recordings he did in Rome in 1949,” says Napoli, who was born in 1974. “They were made with relatively unknown jazz drummers, pianists and clarinet players, joining violinist Stéphane Grappelli, who was a more mature musician by 1949, when the quality of the recording was better.
“Django was playing the music he loved and was so relaxed. In the Rome recordings there are pieces that are completely impromptu, because he is exploring while he is playing. Improvising is the hardest thing to do, because it is the riskiest way of playing. I don’t think a week goes by when I don’t listen to those four sides.”
What makes Reinhardt’s playing all the more astonishing is that in October 1928, he was caught in a caravan fire, which damaged the right side of his body and burned his left hand. He lost the use of both his pinkie and ring finger and had to devise an entirely new way of fingering chords, using the damaged stumps to press on the fretboard while he was playing. Napoli is in awe of Reinhardt’s technique, as well as his imagination. “What stood out was his creativity and also the amazing rhythmic positions he took up with his hands as he invented a complicated horizontal way of playing.”
Napoli is a good example of the modern, inventive entrepreneurial musician. He teaches aspiring musicians at his ‘Gypsy Jazz Guitar Camps’ and has co-written an instruction guidebook (with DVD) about playing gypsy jazz guitar. He uses crowd-funding social media campaigns for albums – his most recent CD is My Favourite Spot – and travels the world playing in festivals and at concert venues.
How would Reinhardt, a famously unpredictable character, have coped in the modern world? “It would have been a lot harder, because you have to focus on so many things besides just the music,” says Napoli. “Django had a tough time even with his brother Joseph helping out by making sure he had picks and strings. When Duke Ellington invited him to the USA, the great bandleader could not really deal with some of Django’s behaviour. Django was a guy who wouldn’t show for gigs, or would be ridiculously late. He was very spur-of-the-moment. Thankfully people believed in him and got him recording deals.”
There is video footage of Reinhardt playing Jattendrai Swing in 1939 – a clip that has been seen 1.4 million times on YouTube. “I know his guitarist grandson David Reinhardt and he has a lot of things with Django that have not yet been released,” adds Napoli. “Hopefully one day that music will be shared with the world.”
Reinhardt is only one of the influences on Napoli’s playing. He enjoyed seeing Eric Clapton as a teenager and would try to emulate “absolute favourites” such as George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian and Joe Pass when he was learning on a battered guitar that cost 40 euros.
When he plays his 14 dates in the UK – on a tour that takes in Sudbury, Cardiff, Bristol, Hereford, Taunton and Ledbury, before finishing in Liverpool – he will mix tributes to Reinhardt with his more modern material.
With him in the UK will be Tommaso Papini on rhythm guitar and Alberto Viganò, primarily on electric bass. “Alberto, who joins me on melodies and does solos, is an interesting player. I have known Tommaso for about eight years. He is a great rhythm player and really good at arranging. He’s a very funny guy and there is never a dull moment. I have done short tours to America, Brazil, Colombia and Holland – and played in Ireland at Cloughtoberfest and at the Django sur Lennon Festival in Donegal – but this time we will be on the road for three weeks. It’s been satisfying putting the tour together myself and I am excited at the prospect of seeing the beautiful British countryside.”
Playing gypsy-style guitar is physically exerting and Napoli says it takes a lot out of him. He works hard at staying fit, although he has cut down on tennis and stopped playing his beloved basketball altogether about 13 years ago after “the wake-up call” of breaking his left thumb during a game.
Nevertheless, he practises relentlessly and is already planning for recording a new album in January 2019. For now, though, the UK is his focus. “My elder brother force-fed me the Beatles as a youngster. They were the first thing I heard and I want to see as much as possible in Liverpool and dig into their history. In fact, we do a gypsy version of Paul McCartney’s 1973 song My Love that just seems to work.”
Another thing that appeals is finding common bonds with a different audience. “Being on stage is the most fun thing to do, and this is an age where lots of musicians rely on live performance for their living,” he says. “I like sharing things with new people. I like explaining insight behind my own instrumental compositions. It is also great to see them understand why we are playing a Django song and why it means so much to us. When you can create a true bond with a crowd, that connection is a unique experience. It can take your music to a new level.” (pp)
11 November: Pizza Express, London
13 November: Brecon Jazz, Brecon
15 November: Cardiff Jazz, Cardiff
16 November: The Stop Cafe, Shrewsbury
17 November: The Market Theatre, Ledbury
18 November: Sunflower & I, Cardiff
19 November: Severn Jazz, Worcester
20 November: Huntingdon Hall, Worcester
21 November: Zelda’s Jazz Room, Wantage
22 November: Weobly Village Hall, Hereford
23 November: Creative Innovation Centre, Taunton
24 November: Liverpool Royal Philharmonic, Liverpool