Jazzing it up gypsy style
By CHRIS JOHNSON
It was late one balmy night during a recent overseas holiday to Noumea (see this edition’s travel pages), wandering around the marina when we heard it.
Live music calling to us from a nearby restaurant.
It was a German restaurant-bar. But New Caledonia is French and this music was typical of the traditional French gypsies.
It was gypsy jazz – or as the French call it, manouche.
We wandered over with enough time to have a drink at the bar while this three-piece outfit played their last few tunes for the night.
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed listening to gypsy jazz music.
It is fast, feel-good and contagious.
And this was the genuine article. We were in French territory, after all.
Two guitarists and a violinist made their instruments sing from the restaurant’s alfresco dining area and the music permeated throughout the whole establishment.
I sneaked a peak to check if the guitarists were playing genuine gypsy jazz instruments.
They were. Of course they were.
Gypsy jazz guitars are built considerably different to most other acoustic guitars.
Their sound holes are either round but much smaller than the typical acoustic, or they are a D-shape hole.
These types of sound holes serve to create a more crisp sound; a bark even.
One style for rhythm and the other for high-pitched solo noodling.
The most famous champion of gypsy jazz music was Django Reinhardt, the Belgian-born, Romani French guitarist and composer who died in 1953 but is still regarded as one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century.
Django (he belongs to that rare club where the mention of his first name alone lets most people know who is being referred to) lost the use of two fingers on his left hand as a very young man when they got burned in a caravan fire.
That did not stop his guitar playing. It merely served to help him create his own style of playing, which would become known as hot jazz guitar and later as gypsy jazz.
He revolutionised the guitar’s appeal and potential.
A guitar teacher of mine once chastised me for complaining that my hands were not big enough to make the most of my instrument’s fret board.
“No excuse!” the teacher scolded.
“Django didn’t have two of his fingers and he became one of the best guitarists in the world.”
In Paris in the 1930s, Django formed the Qunitette du Hot Club de France, which included master violinist Stéphane Grappelli.
Both men shot to enormous fame because of their inventive approach to jazz music.
I have a whole collection of Django Reinhardt records on vinyl – most featuring Grappelli – but it had been a while since I had put any of them on my turntable.
That changed after my chance encounter with a cool trio in Noumea.
I didn’t speak to these musicians or even learn what they called themselves. But I enjoyed their sound.
It got me to thinking about gypsy jazz in Australia.
The style has quite a following here.
Brisbane and Melbourne probably have the biggest and most vibrant scenes of the music in the country. Sydney does okay too. And there are a few good gypsy jazz clubs around.
There is also a number of excellent music festivals in Australia that feature artists and bands in the genre.
We have some quite brilliant home-grown gypsy jazz musicians – Jon Delaney, Peter Baylor, Ewan MacKenzie, Hank Marvin (not THAT Hank Marvin), Mimosa, Spyglass Gypsies, and Ultrafox – to name just a few.
Some outfits have singers while some are purely instrumental (which is how I prefer my gypsy jazz).
A frequent visitor to our shores is Django’s great-nephew Lulo Reinhardt, one of the most outstanding jazz guitarists in the world today.
I saw him play live in a club once and was gobsmacked at his musicianship and proficiency.
For someone who loves both kinds of music – rock AND roll – seeing and hearing a gypsy jazz trio in New Caledonia was quite refreshing.
And it was a reminder that Django would have probably loved Led Zeppelin if he had lived long enough to hear them – but he would have also played the strings off of Jimmy Page.
Published: 16 Aug 2017