Bireli Lagrene | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

France's Bireli Lagrene started playing guitar and listening to Django Reinhardt records when he was four, in 1970. By the time he cut his first record, at 13, he was immersed in Django's 30s Gypsy jazz dialect: the machine-gun single-note lines, the stinging line-ending vibrato, the fat chords charging up the fretboard. Now Lagrene found himself in a classic trap--great jazz musicians are originals, but his attempts to assert his own identity were less satisfying than his homages. He made fusion records and sang Sinatra tunes, but he eventually gave up and came back to his Gypsy heritage. (Django was Manouche tribe, he's Sinti.) On last year's Gypsy Project, (Dreyfus Jazz), he once again evoked the master's ringing acoustic guitar sound, with wide dynamics derived from eastern European fiddle music and a fast, precise attack that may be a positive by-product of his fusion years. (It has an edge over the recent sequel, Gipsy [sic] Project & Friends, with singer Henri Salvador and a couple of guest guitars.) On record his rhythm-guitar-heavy combos remain stuck in a chunky two-beat style that was old hat even when Django used it. That problem may be less severe at the Old Town School, where Lagrene's lean band will include Florin Niculescu, whose sweet violin apes the playing of Django's elegant partner Stephane Grappelli, along with rhythm guitarist Thomas Dutronc and bassist Diego Imbert. Reinhardt's own records still sound fresh, and Lagrene gets way closer to the mark than all the derivative picking in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. In the unenviable opening slot is Chicago's Django-y Alfonso Ponticelli & Swing Gitan. Friday, March 21, 7:30 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000. The 7:30 show is sold-out.

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