Evan Christopher’s Django a la Creole, The Shrewsbury Coffeehouse, Shrewsbury, 23/10/2012.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
A superb evening of music that informed and entertained in equal measure.
Evan Christopher’s Django a la Creole, The Shrewsbury Coffeehouse, Shrewsbury, 23/10/2012.
There are a lot of Django Reinhardt inspired “gypsy jazz” outfits around but I think it’s fair to say that none of them are quite like clarinettist Evan Christopher’s group Django a la Creole. An album title before it became a group “Django a la Creole” was released to great acclaim in 2008 and its success saw New Orleans based Christopher forming a working band around album personnel David Blenkhorn (lead guitar), Dave Kelbie (rhythm guitar) and Sebastien Girardot (double bass).
This international quartet (Kelbie is English, Blenkhorn and Girardot Australian) has toured extensively, particularly in the UK and Ireland, and they have become a highly exciting live unit who take an obvious delight in their playing. I saw them give an excellent performance at the Wyeside Arts Centre in Builth Wells back in 2009 (reviewed elsewhere on this site) but seem to recall that the event was rather sparsely attended. There were no such problems tonight at a sold out Coffeehouse. An audience of around sixty crammed into this intimate venue for a superb evening of music that informed and entertained in equal measure.
Most of the music heard tonight was sourced from the group’s second album “Finesse” (2010), a collection that proved to be even more assured and successful than its predecessor. Things began quietly with Christopher tantalising his audience with the slow and sophisticated syncopations of Django Reinhardt’s “Douce Ambience”, appropriating the tune as his own by subtly introducing the Cuban “Habanera” rhythm into the arrangement.
Tonight’s performance in a “club” setting was more relaxed and informal than the one at Builth had been with the musicians exchanging banter and, in the true jazz tradition, musing about which tune to play next. If Christopher had been teasing us with the opener then a breakneck version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Riverboat Shuffle” gave the audience what it wanted to hear. Christopher and Blenkhorn fairly rattled through their solos, freely exchanging ideas along the way, and Girardot excelled with a theatrical, highly percussive bass feature that involved the slapping technique, something Girardot regularly deploys to give the group an added rhythmic impetus. This was hot stuff in every sense of the word, on a mild October night the Coffeehouse was positively steaming. Sweat was dripping off me so god knows what it was like on the bandstand. As the number finished the barista handed out towels to the musicians so that they could rub themselves down. As Coffeehouse proprietor Jess Kendrick observed it was hot and sweltering enough for us to actually BE in New Orleans.
Christopher’s enthusiasm for his sources is palpable and infectious. Tonight’s show proved to be something of an education as Christopher, speaking confidently and eloquently without the aid of a mic, explained something about the history, geography and context of his group’s music. This was fascinating and I’m sure that everyone in the audience learned something new about the music, myself included. If this jazz thing doesn’t work out Christopher could make a career as a great teacher. We acquired two new words “Django-ise” and “Creole-ise”, both pretty self explanatory I guess as Christopher talked of Reinhardt applying his methods to American jazz standards and US musicians taking Reinhardt’s ideas back to their side of the pond. Christopher’s vision of this productive process of cross fertilisation is very much rooted in the New Orleans tradition but he adds a further contemporary twist by adding rhythms from Cuba, the wider Caribbean and even Brazil to his group’s music yet emphasised that all these had grown out of the West African diaspora and the clave rhythm. He illustrated his points by demonstrating how the song “Dinah” was recast in the Hot Club style by Reinhardt as “Dinette” before adding a little inventiveness of his own and transforming it into a playful cha cha cha.
The lesson continued with Christopher talking of Jelly Roll Morton and the importance of the “Spanish Tinge” taking Morton’s “The Crave” as his example with the interplay between himself and Blenkhorn particularly impressive.
The initial inspiration behind the Django a la Creole project were the 1939 recordings made by Reinhardt and New Orleans born clarinettist Barney Bigard who was visiting France with the Duke Ellington band. Others involved in those sessions were trumpeter Rex Stewart and bassist Billy Taylor and it was Stewart’s blues “Solid Old Man” that Christopher chose to depict this period. Here the piece was a feature for bassist Sebastian Girardot who soloed superbly as well as providing an appropriately solid platform for the interplay between Christopher and Blenkhorn.
From the same 1939 session Billy Taylor’s “Finesse” was based on The Ellington composition “Night Mood”, originally a feature for saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Christopher’s group delivered the piece in relaxed and languid fashion, gradually building momentum through solos by Girardot, Christopher and Blenkhorn with Kelbie nonchalantly directing the pace on rhythm guitar.
To close the first half the group stoked the fires again with a brisk gallop through the technically demanding Reinhardt composition “Feerie” with Blenkhorn, Christopher and Girardot demonstrating their formidable soloing abilities above Kelbie’s driving rhythms.
In the second set Christopher continued his world tour with the music of Sidney Bechet, a New Orleans musician who migrated to France where he was much loved. Bechet’s “Tropical Moon”, also from 1939, incorporated Haitian rhythms but Blenkhorn’s solo, played making use a finger slide, also seemed to bring yet another element to the table. There were moments when he sounded almost Hawaiian as Christopher explored the upper registers of the clarinet.
New Orleans’ most famous son Louis Armstrong was a huge influence on Reinhardt. It was Armstrong who made Hoagy Carmichael’s “Jubilee” famous when he performed it in the 1938 movie “Every Day’s A Holiday”. In the film Armstrong was leading a street parade but tonight it was Christopher’s authentically hot clarinet solo that grabbed the attention with Blenkhorn following suit on feverishly picked guitar.
Duke Ellington’s influence on all styles of jazz was explored on the bluesy, playful “The Mooch” with solos by Blenkhorn and Girardot and the more sombre “Mood Indigo” with Blenkhorn on slide guitar and Christopher on clarinet again combining well. “Mood Indigo” is one of the best known Ellington pieces but Christopher made a compelling pitch suggesting that the authorship should be credited to Lorenzo Tio Jr. a member of a well known New Orleans musical dynasty and Barney Bigard’s clarinet teacher!
Inspired by Nina Simone’s vocal version the traditional Irish folk tune “Black is The colour Of My True Love’s Hair” was a surprising but highly effective inclusion with Christopher emoting above the shimmering backdrop of the two guitars and the rich, dark drone of Girardot’s bowed bass.
The group returned to the Reinhardt repertoire for Django’s “Manoir De Mes Reves” (translation “Castle Of My Dreams”), a beautiful piece that embodies Reinhardt’s romantic side and embraces a distinct classical influence. Christopher advised us that Reinhardt harboured unfulfilled ambitions to complete a large scale classical work. However it could be argued that his perfectly realised three minute masterpieces still loved by musicians (and particularly guitarists) around the world are legacy enough. Here Christopher’s long melodic lines provided the backdrop for Blenkhorn’s delicately picked solo with Christopher later picking up the reins to deliver his own statement.
The second set concluded with a stunning set piece, the musical recreation of a New Orleans jazz funeral in “Dear Old Southland”, a piece that also incorporates the spirituals “Sometimes I feel Like A Motherless Child” and “Deep River”. Here we had it all, Girardot’s solemn bowing and his pounding of the instrument’s body to recreate the sound of the funeral drum, similarly mournful clarinet and then the moment when the “body is cut loose” to join the spirit world, the hymns stop and the jazz kicks in. This “second line” section included dazzling solos from Blenkhorn and Girardot as Kelbie strummed furiously and Christopher shouted encouragement. Christopher’s own solo was stunning, emotionally charged and virtuosic as he swooped up and down the registers ending on a triumphant high.
The audience gave the group a thunderous reception, many of them getting to their feet and an encore was inevitable. This proved to be the final stop on Christopher’s world tour as Sidney Bechet’s “Passport To Paradise” was rendered as “Passaporto ao Paraiso” as the group gave it a Brazilian samba arrangement with Christopher urging the audience to sing along with the melody. This was a good natured way to round off a terrific evening’s entertainment, and one that also educated along the way.
Christopher’s take on the gypsy jazz tradition and his own New Orleans heritage is unique. He’s an awesome technician and an inspired soloist and in Blenkhorn, Kelbie and Girardot he has an absolutely terrific band. His presentation is spot on, delivering just the right amount of pertinent information without resorting to rambling. The music/history/geography lesson was an essential component in the success of the evening. The audience was hot and sweaty but delighted.
My thanks to Jess Kendrick and Chris Quinn for inviting me to this highly successful and enjoyable event and to Evan and the guys for taking the time to chat afterwards. The final four dates on the current Django a la Creole tour are scheduled to take place in theatres and are to be recorded with a view to releasing a live album in 2013. That should be well worth hearing.
The four dates are;
24 Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan, Wales 01239 621200
25 Gwyn Hall, Neath, Wales 0300 365 6677
26 Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton, England 023 8059 5151
27 The Plough Arts Centre, Gt Torrington, England 01805 624624
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