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Guitarist Biréli Lagrène fuses breakneck chops and buoyant Gypsy swing

Wednesday, Mar 5 2003
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Gypsy-bred guitarist Biréli Lagrène was all set to be the next Django Reinhardt. A child prodigy, he picked up the six-string at the age of 4 and was improvising jazz riffs three years later. By 14, Lagrène had released his debut LP, Routes to Django, which landed him a coveted gig on the European festival circuit, where he made his name as a hotshot jammer.

In the mid-'80s, Lagrène toured and recorded with Jaco Pastorius, the leading bassist of the fusion movement. This seminal experience impelled Lagrène toward a speedy-slick style that aimed to merge the breakneck chops and sophisticated compositions of fusion with the buoyant swing and improv sassiness of his roots. But he ultimately wound up sacrificing the subtle piquancy of his influences for a flashier kind of performance that was somewhat lacking in emotion and nuance.

Revisiting the old-school approach of his younger days, 2001's Gypsy Project is arguably the most impressive Lagrène album in years, even though the titles are all Reinhardt vehicles ("Blues Clair," "Daphne," "Belleville") and jazz standards (the Gershwins' "Embraceable You," Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?"). After two decades as an acclaimed professional, the guitarist has nothing to prove anymore. So he now picks and strums with enviable prowess, but without the self-conscious showiness of his fusion efforts. Lagrène and his unpretentious acoustic combo perform with an immediacy and sensuality that cuts straight to the heart.

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Sam Prestianni

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