Virtuosic jazz playing isn't exactly in short supply these days. Fast fingers, in fact, often seem to be more common than imaginative musical ideas.
But Thursday at UCLA's Royce Hall, speed and inventiveness were perfectly partnered in the playing of guitarist Bireli Lagrene and his talented ensemble. Performing a program of material titled "The Gipsy Project: The Tradition of Django Reinhardt," Lagrene -- like Reinhardt a Gypsy -- played with astonishing facility.
His front-line partner, Romanian violinist Florin Niculescu, matched every move with an exquisite blend of virtuosity, musical intelligence and rhythmic drive. In several instances, especially a stunning set of choruses on the bebop special "Donna Lee," his improvising moved even beyond the high level set by Lagrene.
The bulk of the program was devoted to Reinhardt's works, including "Djangology," "Nuages" and "Swing 42." The juxtaposition of Lagrene's guitar and Niculescu's violin recalled the classic interaction between Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli without imitating it, instead using a remarkable musical empathy as a takeoff point to new creative territory.
Lagrene's career has passed from an '80s association with bassist Jaco Pastorius to an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra. But it's hard to imagine him sounding better than he did Thursday, applying his powerful technique to a jazz style that has been intrinsic to his musical identity since he first picked up a guitar.