Jolted by Django

Times Staff Writer

As stubborn specters go, one could do far worse than Django Reinhardt's.

Even guitarist Bireli Lagrene would have to agree -- though it has taken him some time to arrive at that conclusion.

Lagrene emerged on the international music scene as an earnest, ink-eyed prodigy channeling Reinhardt's trademark chug-a-chug rhythms and his joyous soul. He's been tailed by Reinhardt's spirit since he was 7.

Committing the guitarist's strutting solos to memory, Lagrene -- Alsatian-born with Romany roots, like Reinhardt -- dazzled audiences and musicians alike with a technical skill bolstered by his age-defying depth of feeling.

He recorded his first album, at 14 and was sharing stages and record dates with artists from Benny Carter and John McLaughlin to Reinhardt's old sidekick, violinist Stephane Grappelli.

But, it all started to feel rote.

"Around '85, '86, I was just fed up," says Lagrene speaking from his Strasbourg home, quickly packing his bags for a month of dates in the States, including one tonight at UCLA, with his new ensemble, the Gipsy Project. It commemorates -- of all things -- the 50th anniversary of Reinhardt's death. (Coincidentally, violinist Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio pays tribute to Grappelli this weekend at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.)

No one is more surprised at the full circle than Lagrene. Particularly since he had worked so hard to create distance.

At the time, like any restless youth, Lagrene upturned his life. He turned on to rock 'n' roll and electric jazz -- Jimi Hendrix and Jaco Pastorius, respectively -- and didn't look back.

For some time, he gave Reinhardt's brand of hot jazz a wide berth -- more than a decade of working in loud fusion bands, exploring straight-ahead post-bop. But somehow the road led back to Django. Lagrene is not so sure how or why. "I was just listening to a CD -- I think [to] stuff he did with Stephane Grappelli. Something from the late '30s. And I just started calling my musician friends and asked if they would be interested. Everybody fell on their rears!"

Two albums later -- "The Gypsy Project" (2001) and the more interpretative "Gipsy Project & Friends" (2002) -- Lagrene mixes bright and accessible Reinhardt originals with standards placed -- just-so -- in a brisk, hot-jazz setting. "I never thought I would go back. Never in a million years," he says. "But I look at it in a different way now. I could never play or copy Django. I don't see the point. I play around him. Giving him a lot of respect."


Bireli Lagrene

Where: Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood

When: Tonight, 8 p.m.

Cost: $30-$40

Info: (310) 825-2101

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