JJ 11/83: Bireli Lagrene, 100 Club, London

Forty years ago Mark Gilbert acknowledged Lagrene's excellence as a Django imitator while wishing for something more contemporary. First published in Jazz Journal November 1983


Many guitarists will admit to the influence of Django Reinhardt on their playing, from BB King to Jim Hall, but few have perfected successful wholesale mimicry of the gypsy genius. Bireli Lagrene, at 16, is one of the few. He already has a virtuoso technique and a whole catalogue of Reinhardt licks at his fingertips; he also uses a Maccaferri guitar, the sort favoured by Django.

A near capacity crowd at The 100 Club on October 12 gave a warm reception to this long-haired, gaminesque figure, casually attired in Romany style. Backed by Diz Disley and a band including guitarist Denny Wright, Lagrene worked through a set of classic material including Dinah, All Of Me, Djangology and Bireli’s Blues.

Django was invoked not just in spirit but almost to the letter (or note, in this case). Lightning glissandi, rhapsodic melodies, risqué counterpoint and barking chordal punctuations were employed to effect and the crowd were well pleased. To their ululations, Bireli nodded perfunctory acknowledgements – perhaps he is weary of owing his fame so wholly to another’s inventions.

His Django reconstructions are very impressive, but lack Reinhardt’s irrefutable logic. He has the vocabulary but lacks the syntactical fluency. Furthermore, it is always sad to see young musicians committing themselves exclusively to bygone styles. It is unhealthy for them and suggests that the music is becoming ‘classified’. Also, of course, it has all been heard before.

But enough: Lagrene is probably the best Django copyist yet. Catch him while you can, before he develops his own style.