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Evan Christopher

Evan Christopher’s Django a la Creole, Huntingdon Hall, Worcester, 08/03/2014.


by Ian Mann

March 12, 2014


A band that always delivers and which really stands out amongst the scores of Django Reinhardt inspired acolytes. A performance by Evan Christopher is both an entertainment and an education.

Evan Christopher’s Django a la Creole, Huntingdon Hall, Worcester, 08/03/2014.

The progress of clarinettist Evan Christopher’s Django a la Creole project has been well documented on the Jazzmann web pages. Born in Los Angeles Christopher made New Orleans his home for a number of years before moving to Paris in the wake of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. However Christopher’s years in New Orleans cemented his profound affection for the music of the Crescent City, a love that finds its expression in Django a la Creole’s recordings and performances.

Django a la Creole made its live début in 2007 and the group has since recorded three albums “Django a la Creole” (2008) “Finesse” (2010) and the recently released “Live!”(2014). This latest instalment was recorded at four different venues at the end of the group’s 2012 UK tour and follows a similar format to the brilliant performance I saw in the intimate confines of the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse just a few days before the actual recording. All three albums are highly recommended as are the group’s live performances which combine great playing with informed and entertaining comment on the music involved. A performance by Evan Christopher is both an entertainment and an education.

Following the recent flooding in the UK it was great to get and see some live music once again. I’d been forced to abandon planned trips to Abergavenny, Shrewsbury, Birmingham and even nearby Presteigne due to the weather so it was perhaps a touch ironic that the first gig I went to in what seemed like ages should be in Worcester, a city particularly badly afflicted by the recent deluge. I’m pleased to report that life in the city is now back to normal and that Huntingdon Hall itself appeared to be unscathed. The venue is a converted church with an excellent acoustic and I’ve seen a number of memorable performances here over the years, mainly in the jazz and folk genres although the Hall also presents other types of music from rock to classical plus comedy and theatre. A genuine across the board arts centre it is largely staffed by a band of loyal volunteers. And while we’re talking of Worcester let’s hope the County Cricket Club manages to repair the damage done to the pitch by the recent flooding before the start of the new season.

I had originally intended to combine a review of tonight’s show with a look at the recent live album. My thanks to rhythm guitarist Dave Kelbie for furnishing me with a copy of the album and also for putting my wife and I on the guest list for tonight’s show. However tonight’s performance was so substantially different I feel that it’s probably best if tonight’s gig and the album are treated as separate entities. The reason for this change of heart is the result of a significant line up change. Christopher, Kelbie, double bassist Sebastien Girardot and lead guitarist Dave Blenkhorn have constituted the group since the beginning but for this tour Blenkhorn has been replaced by the remarkable Don Vappie, a multi instrumentalist and vocalist from New Orleans.

Vappie not only plays convincing lead guitar in this context but is also a highly accomplished banjo player who has recorded a number of albums on the latter instrument. He’s played bass with Wynton Marsalis and is also a more than useful vocalist. Christopher and Vappie played regularly together in New Orleans before the clarinettist moved to Paris. Vappie remained in his native city where he performs regularly with his own jazz orchestra, the Creole Jazz Serenaders.

Vappie’s inclusion adds extra authenticity to the Creole part of the equation but one shouldn’t under estimate the influence of the great Django Reinhardt. As I’ve observed in earlier articles about this project there’s still a lot of Reinhardt influenced music around but none of the many gypsy jazz groups sound quite like Django a la Creole. Christopher’s group is one of the most distinctive Reinhardt inspired groups around and adds a contemporary, often exotic twist to the Reinhardt legacy through the use of Latin and Brazilian rhythms. 

Although tonight’s performance included several items from the quartet’s albums the presence of Vappie cast the music in a new light, particularly so with Vappie’s banjo and voice increasing the range of sounds available to the group. Tonight’s show was also notable for being virtually all acoustic, Vappie deployed a small amp but the other three members were essentially unplugged with the acoustics of the hall ensuring that all four were clearly audible and with the sound particularly well delineated. I don’t think I’ve heard Kelbie’s rhythm lines in such sharp definition before.

Vappie, Kelbie and Girardot took to the stage first with Christopher making something of a grand entrance as the quartet opened with “Linger A While"with solos from Christopher on clarinet, Vappie on guitar and Girardot on double bass, his use of the slap technique frequently adding to the music’s rhythmic drive. This was the group’s second gig of the day following a lunch time appearance at a well attended jazz festival at Colston Hall, Bristol,  this following a delayed overnight trip on the Eurostar following a show in Paris - and yet they showed no signs of tiredness. Instead they exuded a genuine sense of fun allied to a sense of discovery as they explored the possibilities of this new international configuration featuring two Americans, the English Kelbie and the Franco/Australian Girardot.

Christopher’s love of his source material is expressed both in his playing and in his instructive comments on the music throughout a performance. Each tune is introduced with both background information as to its provenance and further explanation with regard to the group’s interpretation of it. The listener learns a lot at an Evan Christopher show, he’s a fine educator and a good ambassador for this music. The group continued with Reinhardt’s “Douce Ambiance”, the composition that opens the recent live album. Christopher explained how he liked to “Creolize” Reinhardt’s tunes, in this case adding the Cuban habanera rhythm to achieve something of Jelly Roll Morton’s famous “Spanish Tinge”.
Of course the process also works in reverse, Christopher also likes to “Django-ize” New Orleans tunes, in this case a lively version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “River Boat Shuffle with Kelbie’s breakneck rhythms fuelling solos from Christopher on clarinet, Vappie on guitar and an extensive feature from Girardot on elaborately slapped bass.

The next item saw a radical departure for the group with Vappie switching to banjo to sing the Creole song “Salee Dame”, a piece that originally appeared on the 1940’s recording “Jazz A La Creole” featuring clarinettist Albert Nicholas, bassist Pops Foster, drummer Baby Dodds and others.
The sung verses alternated with instrumental solos by Christopher on clarinet and Vappie on banjo.
Kelbie described Vappie’s banjo playing as “funky” but it’s much more than that. He’s a brilliant player on this often maligned instrument and his playing of it in the second set was frequently jaw dropping. He’s no slouch on the guitar either and it’s remarkable to think that he may consider the guitar as his second, or even third instrument.

Introducing the next tune Christopher told us of Django Reinhardt’s meeting with the Duke Ellington band in Europe in 1938. Reinhardt subsequently recorded with members of the Ellington band including trumpeter Rex Stewart and clarinettist Barney Bigard, the latter a major inspiration for this project. Stewart’s tune “Solid Old Man” is a popular item in the repertoire of the Christopher group, here something of a feature for the excellent Girardot who demonstrated his fluency as a soloist without recourse to the slapping technique as Kelbie provided the necessary rhythmic drive. 

“Mamanita” was an arrangement of a solo piano piece by Jelly Roll Morton with a renewed focus on Morton’s “Spanish Tinge” through the inclusion of clave and habanera rhythms as Christopher and Vappie enjoyed a series of scintillating clarinet and guitar exchanges.

The first set concluded with a rousing version of Reinhardt’s “I Know You Know”, originally a celebration of the shared language of jazz featuring the European Reinhardt and the American Bigard. Vappie’s solo guitar intro gave way to Kelbie’s ferocious rhythmic drive and Christopher’s solo also evoked the spirit of Jimmie Noone. Vappie returned for another fleet fingered guitar feature and Girardot also featured before Christopher played us out with a second solo, complete with quote from “Swanee River”.

Set two began rather incongruously with “The Farewell Blues”, originally by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and later recorded by Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter.  Here we heard suitably hot solos from Christopher on clarinet, Vappie on guitar and Girardot on slapped bass.

A marvellous version of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” (aka “Funky Butt”) featured Vappie’s voice and banjo. His banjo solo was a real tour de force, I’ve never seen this instrument, often the butt of musicians’ jokes, played so brilliantly, except perhaps by Eugene Chadbourne or Bela Fleck. However compared to the post modern approach of these guys Vappie’s playing stays much closer to his New Orleans source, even allowing for a quote from Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”.

The music of Sidney Bechet is another touchstone from Christopher. From the album “Finesse” came “Tropical Moon” in an arrangement that incorporated the merengue and habanera rhythms of Haiti. Members of the audience could be seen swaying in their seats as they enjoyed solos by Christopher on clarinet and Vappie on guitar.

Reinhardt’s “Manoir de Mes Reves”, often known as “Django’s Castle” was written in the 1940’s and revealed the influence of modern classical music, particularly that of Ravel and Debussy, upon the composer. Christopher’s arrangement combines Reinhardt’s balladry with a Cuben bolero and here provided a setting for Vappie’s coolly elegant guitar and Christopher’s almost flute like clarinet tones.

A strutting, high tempo version of Hoagy Carmichael’s ” Jubilee” was dedicated to the memory of Louis Armstrong with exceptional solos from Christopher on clarinet, Vappie on guitar and Girardot with the now familiar slapped bass.

In his liner notes to the recent live album Christopher describes his arrangement of Duke Ellington’s 1929 hit “The Mooche” as “African”. It certainly offered plenty of dynamic contrasts, smouldering one moment, red hot the next with Vappie on guitar the stand out soloist.

A knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience numbering around eighty (not quite enough to make it the EVENT the Shrewsbury performance had been -fewer people but a sell out in a very intimate venue) gave the quartet a great reception and they returned to play an encore of W.C. Handy’s “Careless Love” featuring Vappie’s banjo and vocals in conjunction with Christopher’s clarinet and a surprisingly lyrical Girardot bass solo.

This was the third time I’d seen Django a la Creole following previous visits to Builth Wells and Abergavenny and it’s true to say that whatever the line up this band always delivers. Christopher is a brilliant soloist, a talented arranger and a great ambassador for the twin strands of Creole music and gypsy jazz. He surrounds himself with highly talented band mates (Kelbie is a great organiser as well as the UK’s go to rhythm guitar player) and has created a band that really stands out amongst the scores of Reinhardt inspired acolytes.

Future UK and European dates include;

14/05 Bregenz 20h30
? 24,- | 21 Seelax festival, Freudenhaus, Bregenz, Austria

15/05 Salzburg 19h30 0043/662/845110
The Oval, Europark Salzburg, Europastra?e 1, Salzburg, Austria

22/05 Frant 20h 01892 750665
Parish Church, High Street, Frant TN3 9DX

28/05 Bath 20h 01225 463362
Bath Fringe Festival, Spiegeltent, The Rec, Bath

29/05 Wavenden 20h 01908 280800
The Stables, Stockwell Lane, Wavendon MK17 8LU

31/05 Southampton 20h 023 8059 5151
Turner Sims, University of Southampton SO17 1BJ

03/06 London 20h 0845 6027 017
Pizza Express jazz club, Dean St, London W1D 3RW

06/06 Saint Adresse 20h
Dixie Days Festival, Saint Adresse, France

22/07 Bury St Edmunds 20h 01284 758000
The Apex, 1 Charter Square, Bury St Edmunds IP33 3FD

24/07 Edinburgh 20h 0131 668 2019
International Jazz and Blues festival, Queens Hall, EH8 9JG

25/07 Hull 20h
Jazz festival, Hull Truck Theatre, Hull HU2 8LB

12/10 Marsden 15h 01484 846969
Jazz festival, Marsden Mechanics, Peel St, Yorks HD7 6BW

18/10 Abergavenny 20h 01873 350805
Borough Theatre, Monmouthshire, NP7 5HD




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