(Kings Place Hall One. 22 July 2023. Live review by Sebastian Scotney)
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“Solo guitar, it’s not really my thing”. Biréli Lagrène’s remark really threw me. And of all times, right at the beginning of a solo guitar recital. What was he trying to tell us? Was it a joke? I’m not sure. But it certainly set me thinking…
Lagrène was playing solo at Kings Place Hall One, as part of the International Guitar Foundation’s 2023 Guitar Summit, with a guitarist-heavy room, a custom-built Fibonacci guitar, an amp. No pedals.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about his opening remark is that he released a solo guitar album just over a year ago – “Solo Suites” (PeeWee!) – so he and his management presumably aren’t averse to seeing solo dates in the diary, especially since the album has been very well received indeed in France. No mention of the album was made by anyone at the concert.
“Solo Suites” is a studio album, and the big claim being made for it when it was issued, and repeated in several reviews, was that the Alsace-born guitarist had waited until his mid-fifties to make his first album of solo guitar.
Steady on. A perfunctory bit of research shows that the label’s claim is not strictly true. Another, very lively album of extracts of solo playing from different concerts, “To Bi Or Not To Bi” (Dreyfus Jazz, 2006) is widely available. And whereas the older album shows the rapidity of Lagrène’s mind and fingers when they are sparked by the presence of an audience, the new one is different, much more tune-based, and its highlight is probably a mesmerizingly thoughtful “Nature Boy”.
I wondered if the words of the great French jazz writer Francis Marmande, who wrote the elegant and eloquent sleeve note for “Solo Suites” might perhaps throw some light on why being onstage alone probably does go against the grain and feel unnatural for Lagrène. He/they did.
Marmande’s piece took me back on a journey which is familiar to me too. The first encounter I had with the stunning energy and the dazzling facility of Biréli Lagrène’s playing was from hearing the young prodigy on his first album, “Routes To Django – Live At The Krokodil”. The guitarist recorded it in May 1980 when he was not quite fourteen years old (!) , at a club in Kirchheim/Teck outside Stuttgart. It’s still available on YouTube (link below). Unforgettable.
Marmande remembers those beginnings too, but his sleeve note reinforces the idea of Lagrène’s musical essence as having first come from the communal / extended family music setting. Marmande writes (my translation) “Soon enough, with his family or at parties, he understood that playing meant playing together. Together, he will have crossed paths with the greatest musicians, those most treasured, the monsters but the lesser ones too – it made absolutely no difference – always the same fire. The same commitment. The same joy of playing.”
And how those attributes have seen his career soar, and take him in so many directions. He played a lot with Jaco Pastorius, (their version of “Chicken” on the “Broadway Blues” album is his most-streamed). There was also a brief reincarnation of Cream with Lagrène stepping into the giant shoes of Eric Clapton. His appearances at Ronnie’s in the last few years at Ronnie’s also show his range: a trio with Jean-Luc Ponty and Kyle Eastwood, a Pastorius project with Lagrène on bass, and others. He has a two-guitar duo with Martin Taylor.
On Saturday, the audience of guitarists and enthusiasts was treated to an astonishing display. Lagrène’s variety of tone and touch, the extended techniques, the way he can make a melody out of anything, even the progressive down-tuning of the low E-string.
Marmande writes that the guitarist does have “son amour indémenti des basses” (his unwavering love of basses). That is so true, perhaps never more so than when one sees a raised slap bass thumb keen get into action and lay down a new riff.
The action, the shifts of mood were constant. We hears allusions by the shedload, from the bass riff from Herbie’s “Chameleon” to Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” (no set list available so far.). Perhaps the guitar-specialist audience made him keen just to demonstrate his virtuoso credentials. I found myself longing to get lost in just one place, one tune, rather than being constantly on the move to somewhere else. It is a minor quibble; Lagrène is one of the great guitarists and he was on fine form. Will he ever shake off the “gipsy” and “prodigy” tags, and just be considered as a very fine guitarist, and one with an instantly recognizable touch? Who knows.