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In The Dust #5: Django Reinhardt ‘The Classic Early Recordings’ (1935-1939)

Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost, but not forgotten.

In the Belgian countryside in 1910, a baby boy was born to the Reinhardts, a family of Manouche gypsies. They named him Jean, but soon would refer to him by his nickname, “Django”, Romani for “I awake”. Little is known about his life, as such a community keeps no record, though we know just enough to account how a near-death accident begat one of the most original and most influential jazz guitar players in history.

The Reinhardts were furniture makers. They scavenged for cane or any suitable material they could find to weave it into tables, chairs, anything of necessity for potential customers. The Reinhardts lived mostly in group encampments close to Paris, but far enough away that the community’s vagrancy was not a bother.

As entertainment was hard to come by, the Reinhardt clan and their extended community included a number of talented amateur musicians and music was a keystone of life. Django exhibited an interest from an early age, learning very young how to play the violin and, later, at age 12, the banjo. Thanks to the tutelage of two older gypsy musicians, Django left furniture making behind and began playing banjo professionally one year later, at the age of 13.

By 18, Django was married, living with his wife in their own caravan, and deep into his career as a professional musician. They were desperately poor, as Django was still young and inexperienced, so his wife, Florine, sold flowers she twisted out of celluloid and paper for extra money. After returning home late from a gig, Django knocked over a candle. He went to bed, not knowing his wife’s flowers had caught flame.

Django’s neighbors pulled he and his wife to safety, but not before Django had sustained first and second-degree burns over a substantial portion of his body. His right leg was initially completely paralyzed, and the ring and pinky fingers of his left hand, the one he used to form chords, were severely burned. He was taken to a hospital, where doctors informed him they would have to take his leg, and he would never play guitar again.

Reinhardt refused the surgery. Within a year he was walking with the aid of a cane and, after receiving it as a gift from his brother, Reinhardt put aside his banjo and set about reinventing jazz guitar.

His ring and pinky fingers never overcame their partial paralysis. Reinhardt learned to play solos with just his index and middle fingers, the others he used exclusively for chording. This new technique resulted in a curious and entirely new style now referred to as “hot” jazz guitar, akin to style of New Orleans-based Louis Armstrong and his band, featuring blinding tempos and frenzied improvisations of astonishing speed and dexterity, peppered by crisp, cutting chord work.

Soon after Reinhardt’s rehabilitation and discovery of “hot” jazz, he met a young violinist named Stephane Grappelli. The two were both enamored of Louis Armstrong and shared similar musical sensibilities. Because of the radical nature of Reinhardt’s new style, paid work was nonexistent, so from the years of 1929 to 1933, he and Grappelli played only for, and with, each other and several other local musicians. These years, along with Reinhardt’s previous rehabilitation, are largely considered to be one the most important “quiet” periods in jazz, and the musical companionship of Reinhardt and Grappelli, for many, produced the finest music of either of their careers.

In 1934, Reinhardt’s brother, Joseph, invited Django and Grappelli to join his Quintette du Hot Club du France. Effectively no longer a quintet, the group now featured three guitars, a violinist, and a bassist, all string instruments, which at the time was rare. Occasionally the group would back a singer, but Reinhardt, his groundbreaking guitar playing and masterful interplay with Grappelli would soon become the focal point.

It is at the formation of the Quintette du Hot Club du France The Classic Early Recordings, a five-disc box set, begins, featuring the group’s first ever recordings, twenty-two sides billed as their own and four as the backing band for instrumentalists Frank ‘Big Boy’ Goudie and Alix Combelle. Of the twenty-two QHCF sides, nineteen are jazz standards or popular songs, but “Djangology”, a dizzying, jaunty, knock-kneed three minutes split into first a Reinhardt then a Grappelli solo, one of the groups first original compositions, would soon become a jazz standard itself and solidify Reinhardt, Grappelli and the entire QHCF as artists of the highest caliber.

Volume B skips ahead considerably in the chronology, as it is a collection of the 1938 & 1939 London Decca Recordings, some made with the QHCF, others with Reinhardt and Grappelli or even Django by himself. This session featured a matured, strengthened QHCF, and an equally more sophisticated Reinhardt and Grappelli. Of the songs recorded for Decca in London, about half are original compositions, most notably, “Daphne” another Reinhardt and Grappelli original that would make it’s way into the cannon of jazz standards. “Daphne” is a cheerful, almost-sing-a-long lead by Grappelli’s soaring violin, which bookends first with a refrain and then a solo and refrain a long, scaling Django solo of remarkably pure trills and triplets. The consistency of rhythm, balanced velocity and tonal quality of the band in this recording show truly proficient musicians operating at their finest, and the poise with which Grappelli and Reinhardt show in their ability to sail just over them, not overcome them, and play into and off of each other with such lackadaisical ease and seeming carelessness, alternating matador and bull, is the mark of a fully realized musical relationship.

The collection visits the concurrent Paris Decca Recordings in Volume C, also from 1938 & 1939. The vast majority of QHCF recordings and Reinhardt and Grappelli work happened in Paris, London Decca being the obvious exception, but the same competent, talented band as the London Decca sessions is now back home, in familiar surroundings, and free to feel and play as only nationals can in the country of their birth. Paris Decca features most of the core members of the QHCF, but not billed as such. These recordings are again about half standard or popular song and half original. The interesting feature of this volume is that many of the songs are collected with multiple takes and assembled from dubs, which show the striking amount of improvisation from take to take of every song recorded by Django, Grappelli and the QHCF, no matter the structure of stature of a particular tune. The differences, at times, are astounding. The two takes of “Twelfth Year” (Version 1 & Version 2) another Reinhardt original, contain some of the most incomprehensibly brilliant jazz guitar anyone has ever heard, but both swing in completely different ways, both so strongly rooted in a unique feeling worlds apart from one another, solely due to Reinhardt’s varying expression of the intro rhythm, hinting refrain and color of his improvisations. Grappelli does the same with his solos, which close out the piece. Both artists defer first to the mood, and then to each other, to craft totally flawless and entirely spontaneous performances on each and every go-around, which, to put it simply, is jazz.

We travel back in time some to 1935 & 1936 for Volume D, more Paris recordings, and some of the most exciting of the collection, those made with tenor sax legend Coleman Hawkins. While Django mostly plays sideman in these sessions, his guitar is always very audible, and there are moments where he is allowed to shine. He does not disappoint, showing up many of the bands soloists and, at times, Coleman himself. On “Avalon”, the second song of the first session, Django performs a very brief but scalding solo which he slides into with insane, frantic grace, then immediately slows to a slender syncopated picking pattern, and finally speeds back into a reckless, but never out-of-pocket, flurry of strums. On “Stardust”, the only song of the second session, we see prominently Stephane Grappelli’s remarkable skill at the piano, a delight that is featured several times in the collection. Django also gets another solo, one of similar length, but of a slower lover’s tempo so that he can really unfold. Django chimes in with a small fanfare as Coleman commences the last four bars of his solo. Django then takes over with calm, collected runs that drip contemplatively like wax from a candle, scaling up and scaling down, arpeggiating and resolving, in characteristic style, with a flourish and not a flicker.

The collection concludes with Volume E, an “odds and ends” of sorts, featuring two sessions, the 1935 Garnet Clark and 1937 HMV recordings, none of which, in themselves, are particularly rare but the condition in which these recordings are presented is. Composed mostly of standards and popular songs, these sessions contain many songs of the hottest songs of the day, such as “Charleston,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “Body and Soul,” recorded by the classic QHCF personnel, but also three recorded by Garnet Clark and his Hot Club’s Four, which includes Django playing some of his few-and-far-between contract work. They play “Stardust,” as did Django with Coleman, but of the three songs they recorded, “Rosetta,” is the standout. At times sounding mysteriously like a precursor to Monk and bebop, Garnet Clark’s piano is a tumbling, lazy-eyed and delirious trip across the various octaves of the keyboard, separating the excellent solos of his various band members, but unfortunately relegating Django solely to rhythm work.

Of the 124 sides of this collection, many are some of the finest jazz ever recorded, but that is not to say that Django’s brilliance commenced, and ceased, here. He went on to record some of his best work and play in Paris and around the world through the Second World War and on into the early fifties. He settled in Samois-sur-Scene, a small French town in his later years, where he rarely travelled, but still played out consistently. He began playing the electric guitar. His final recordings show Reinhardt’s total comprehension, and appreciation for, the burgeoning bebop movement.

There is a myth that Reinhardt simply disappeared, vanished, never to be heard from again. That is not the case. Reinhardt collapsed of a brain hemorrhage at a train station in Avon and was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital in nearby Fontainebleau. He was 43 years old. But as craftsmen die, their handiwork lives on. Like the furniture of the finest furniture maker, proud, aged, dignified, impervious, destined to outlive it’s master, so is the legacy of Django Reinhardt, carefully woven from so many unusual strands into a strong, totally unique and altogether incomparable body of work upon which can rest the weight of his influence, and the ears of scores of adoring fans for centuries to come.

This entire five volume set is available via Spotify.

Written by Ben Brundage. Check out Ben’s Tumblr Damned Fine Lion


In The Dust #3: John Coltrane ‘A Love Supreme’

Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost, but not forgotten. (Listen via Spotify)

This is the Holy Grail.

I wish I could leave it at that, but a record this dense, of this magnitude, of such indescribable brilliance—while with opaque brevity seems the only effective way to approach it, this record deserves more.

John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme in a single day, on December 9th, 1964, at Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The personnel list is a veritable who’s who of hard bop: Jimmy Garrison on double bass, McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums. The album is structured as a four-song suite and clocks in at a trim 33:02, but as many physicists contend that an entire universe can exist in a single atom of one’s fingernail, so does a universe in every note of A Love Supreme.

At the albums center is a single concept and a single motif. Coltrane writes in his liner notes to A Love Supreme, “This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say “THANK YOU GOD” through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues.” It is indeed a spiritual album, a prayer, one over the course of which Coltrane embarks on a quest for understanding and purity. Through this suite, Coltrane wishes to establish a communion with God and express to Him a realization that neither his talent nor his horn are his own, but rather gifts from Him, and for that he is grateful.

Coltrane establishes this communion in a sequence reminiscent of said prayer. Of the structure, Coltrane writes:

The music herein is presented in four parts. The first is entitled “Acknowledgement,” the second, “Resolution,” the third, “Pursuance,” and the fourth and last part is a musical narration of the theme, “A LOVE SUPREME,” which is written in the context; it is entitled, “Psalm.”

Part I, “Acknowledgement” is Coltrane’s “Dear God.” It begins with a gong, a call to attention, over which Coltrane floats a repetitive fanfare that is a loose variation on the piece’s central theme. From beneath Coltrane’s rooster-crow, Elvin Jones washes his way into focus with dusty cymbal crescendos and rolls. It is then, in the deep groove of Garrison’s double bass, we first hear the central motif: “ba-dum ba-dum, ba-dum ba-dum.” Garrison leads this motif as it is repeated four times. Jones then strikes the beat. It is repeated four more times and Tyner joins with a smattering of complementary chords. It is repeated eight more times, as if to set the stage for the main attraction, and Coltrane returns, sliding onto the forefront of the aural canvas with break-neck modulated variations, at which point Garrison retreats and all proceed to follow the master. Coltrane’s horn seems to cry out with the repressed anguish of every past transgression, first in a spitfire wailing, like a pressurized liquid breaking its seal, and later in controlled four-note bleats, as if he has nothing more to confess, no more tears to cry, and is now apologizing to Him, pleading that he’s been a believer all along. These four-note bleats slowly recede into the most visceral, penetrative moment of the album: a vocal refrain from Coltrane himself of the albums theme: “A Love Supreme,” a final acknowledgement, a moment of peace in knowing that if one can muster confession, He can muster forgiveness.

Part II, “Resolution,” begins, as did Part I, with Garrison leading, this time alone. He rapidly plucks sharp pairs of repeating notes with palpable determination, generating a forward momentum, on which Jones, Tyner and Coltrane can simultaneously jump. They attack with a purposeful and deliberate ferocity, one that they effortlessly maintain throughout “Resolution,” one that echoes the very title of the movement itself. Coltrane has concluded his address to God, not-so-literally acknowledging own misdeeds and misgivings and His grace and power, and graduated to discussing with God what he believes he can do to atone and gain His favor. Coltrane’s resolve comes in the form of two fervent, insistent solos, both foreshadowing and echoing each other respectively, and separated by, as if from His own lips, a strict, capable, and somehow patiently impassioned retort from the keys of McCoy Tyner. Coltrane pleads to be a better man, promising that by giving ownership of his talent and craft away to a higher power, he will become a conduit for Him, and thus more powerful himself. The movement bookends how “Acknowledgement,” began not with a bang, but with a whimper: Jones crashes hard, then rolls softly and washes into the ether as the band slowly and carefully descends and side 1 hisses to a close.

Pursuance,” Part III of the suite, the beginning of the second side and the centerpiece of the album, is Coltrane’s response to what he proposed in “Resolution.” It begins, appropriately enough, with a drum solo from Elvin Jones. Jones was once asked how he and Coltrane are capable of making the music they do. Jones famously responded, “To play the way we play, you have to be willing to die for the motherfucker.” Jones’s solo is a perfect example of this, and a fitting retort to “Resolution.” He begins in empty space, tapping inquisitively on his ride cymbal and tentatively on his toms until runs begin to materialize, along with his confidence and direction, which take their shape before you as if by magic. He slowly emerges from an ambient whisper to practically scream, “We told you about it, now watch us do it!” From the first notes out of Coltrane’s horn, a walking bounce of sorts, it’s clear that “Pursuance,” is pure action! Coltrane sets this tone and immediately passes it to Tyner for further exposition. Tyner sprints his way up and down the keyboard, tickling wind-chime runs that he breaks with terse, round chords as Jones rides hard and Garrison walks the bass behind him. Coltrane breaks back in over Tyner with fire and brimstone. Inaction is sin! No more propositions! Each member of Coltrane’s band asserts that suggestions and hints have occupied their place in this suite and now it is time for execution. And heads do roll.

Part IV, “Psalm,” is the spire on the church, as the cherry is to the sundae. In his description of the suite, Coltrane refers to “Psalm” as a ‘musical narration’ of his devotional poem of same name as the album, included in the liner notes. The poem reads as follows:

A Love Supreme

I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord.
It all has to do with it.
Thank you God.
There is none other.
God is. It is so beautiful.
Thank you God. God is all.
Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses.
Thank you God.
In You all things are possible.
We know. God made us so.
Keep your eye on God.
God is. He always was. He always will be.
No matter what…it is God.
He is gracious and merciful.
It is most important that I know Thee.
Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts,
fears and emotions—time—all related …
all made from one … all made in one.
Blessed be His name.
Thought waves—heat waves—all vibrations—
all paths lead to God. Thank you God.
His way…it is so lovely…it is gracious.
It is merciful—Thank you God.
One thought can produce millions of vibrations
and they all go back to God … everything does.
Thank you God.
Have no fear…believe…Thank you God.
The universe has many wonders. God is all. His way…it is so wonderful.
Thoughts—deeds—vibrations, etc.
They all go back to God and He cleanses all.
He is gracious and merciful…Thank you God.

Glory to God…God is so alive.
God is.
God loves.
May I be acceptable in Thy sight.
We are all one in His grace.
The fact that we do exist is acknowledgement of
Thee O Lord.
Thank you God.
God will wash away all our tears…
He always has…
He always will.
Seek Him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday.
Let us sing all songs to God
To whom all praise is due…praise God.
No road is an easy one, but they all go back to God.
With all we share God.
It is all with God.
It is all with Thee.
Obey the Lord.
Blessed is He.
We are from one thing…the will of God…
Thank you God.
I have seen God—I have seen ungodly—none can
be greater—none can compare to God.
Thank you God.
He will remake us … He always has and He
always will.
It is true—blessed be His name—Thank you God.
God breathes through us so completely…so gently
we hardly feel it…yet, it is our everything.
Thank you God.
All from God.
Thank you God.         Amen.

Coltrane, in his ‘musical narration’, effectively “plays” these words to close the suite. Over the thick, heavy pulse of Tyner’s chords, the asymmetrical, tympanic rolling of Jones’s drums, the sizzling splash of his cymbals, and the flurried thumping of Garrison’s bass beneath Jones, Coltrane pours his soul from his horn, echoing the messages of each previous movement, and speaks of new life emerging from them. “I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord. / It all has to do with it. / Thank you God,” he sings, repeating his “Acknowledgement.” “One thought can produce millions of vibrations / and they all go back to God … everything does. / Thank you God. / Have no fear … believe … thank you God,” he sings, colored with the promises of “Resolution.” “No road is an easy one, but they all / go back to God. / With all we share God. / It is all with God. / It is all with Thee. / Obey the Lord. / Blessed is He. / We are from one thing … the will of God … thank you God. / I have seen God – I have seen ungodly – / none can be greater – none can compare to God. / Thank you God,” he sings as we retrace the steps along the road of “Pursuance.” He concludes both his ‘musical narration’ and his poem, “ELATION-ELEGANCE-EXALTATION / All from God. / Thank you God. Amen,” and he summons from his horn a cry of mad and tearful ecstasy, like Baldwin’s John in Go Tell It On The Mountain, writhing on the floor of a Calvinist Church, screaming, disoriented and exhausted, aching from the intense mental trial of being saved. Coltrane’s last breath passes in a flurry of notes and dies softly, as if he is drained of it, and with it the last of him is gone. He will continue to blow his horn, but he will not own it, and it will not be his breath that fills it. It will be His.

Written by Ben Brundage. Check out Ben’s Tumblr Damned Fine Lion.