Biréli Lagrène: A Gypsy Virtuoso Returns to the Music of his Youth
An interview by Peter Anick
(reprinted from Fiddler Magazine)
Biréli and Florin Niculescu
As a teenager, the Alsatian Gypsy guitarist Biréli Lagrène was already being heralded as an heir to Django Reinhardt. He made several acclaimed albums of Gypsy jazz and then, at age 15 turned to explore other kinds of music. For the next two decades, he crossed paths with the likes of John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia, Jaco Pastorius, Larry Coryell, Jack Bruce, and Al DiMeola. In 2001, he returned to his roots with the formation of his “Gypsy Project”, a hot club ensemble with Florin Niculescu on violin. I caught their show in Strasbourg that year and the spontaneity, virtuosity, and good-natured interplay between Biréli and Florin reminded me of what it must have been like to see Django and Stéphane together live. Biréli’s playing was not an imitation of Django’s, however. His twenty years of musical exploration have given him a thoroughly personal and modern approach to the music of his youth, which is what makes this group’s performances so enjoyable and unpredictable. In March of 2003, the band arrived in Oakland, California for the start of a month-long tour of the United States. At the end of their first show at Yoshi’s Jazz House, I overheard a conversation among two patrons as they headed out. “So what did you think?” one asked. “Did you like the show?” To which the other replied, “That’s like asking if you like happiness!”
In this interview with Biréli, we focus on his relationship with Gypsy jazz, from his childhood immersion to his current triumphant return.
Let’s start at the beginning. How young were you when you took up the guitar?
I think I must have been four or five. My father was a big Django fan and a Stéphane Grappelli fan and he just loved this Hot Club de France music. He also grew up with it, so since he was a guitar player, he wanted us – me and my brother – to become guitar players and to play Django Reinhardt’s music. And he taught us. I remember I had my first information about the guitar at the age of four but I was able six months or a year after to play a few notes more or less.
Did you have a guitar that was small enough to play?
No, I had a regular guitar, because my mother told me that I would sit on the floor and I would just use the neck and the rest of the body would lay to my right. I would just put the neck on my legs and just use the neck.
Was your father teaching you specific techniques at that point?
He taught me from the very beginning how to place my fingers on the fretboard. But that didn’t last too long because I was making so much progress, so within a year I could play quite a lot of it.
You had been hearing the music around the house before that?
Well, music was around the house the whole day long. In every room you could go and hear different music. A lot of Django of course. But my father also listened to a lot of classical music. He loved Bach, Stravinsky, Mozart. So that was and is still a big influence on me, classical music.
Did you have a lot of people coming by and jamming at your house at that time?
All the time. Because all my father’s friends and people who heard about me at that time, they would come over just to see me play. My buddies at that time, they were like “Why don’t you come out more often with us and play kid stuff?” But I was already somewhere else. I already made my choice by then.
What did you start out learning? Chords or notes?
I did both. As far as I can remember, I always did both. My brother was ten years older than me and he and I played every day, three or four hours. Since my brother would play rhythm, I would always play solos and he would comp me.
Do you remember what tunes you liked at the beginning?
Like today, it didn’t change – Nuages, Minor Swing… all these tunes.
The changes in some of those tunes, like Nuages, are pretty complex.
Yeah, it is, and I was so little at that time, but already musically I knew what form it has and where to go harmonically. I worked those things out.
Did you know the names of all the chords?
Of course not. I just played it by ear, what seemed right to me, what seemed in tune to me.
Did your father show you all the chord forms?
My brother showed me more than my father. My father would just walk in the room and check us out. “That’s good, guys, keep it going! I’ll be back in twenty minutes.” Stuff like that.
Did he urge you to practice?
No, he never needed to say that, because I was too involved with the music, so he just let me do whatever I wanted because he saw that I was very motivated. He would just come around and check me out. “Is everything all right?”
At what point did you actually start performing?
That was not until I was twelve, I think, or so. Because at twelve I recorded my first record and from there on we went on tour. We had a quintet at that time. They were already in their thirties, except for me and my brother, who was ten years older than I was. We had to watch it because when we used to play clubs and the gig starts at 8:30, 9 o’clock and you have a twelve year old boy there, it’s not the thing to do at that age! I used to go to bed really late. I would just hang around with the guys and go to bed when they felt like going to bed. That’s probably why I have my physical endurance now.
You’ve played lots of different kinds of music since, but your new “Gypsy Project” seems to be making Django’s style of music more popular again.
Well, I’m very happy about this, because when I started this project, I didn’t do it just to go out and play gigs. I felt like I wanted to do it again, because I hadn’t played this music for over fifteen years. I had a longing towards this music, so I decided to do it, and now all of a sudden six months later it was like a big boom. In Europe, it seems like that kind of music is coming back very much now. It was always around, for seventy years. It was always there but it didn’t really take off. And I don’t mean that I made it take off, I had nothing to do with it. It’s a movement, a musical movement. People want to listen to more acoustic music. There’s so much electronic stuff going on. So, going back to the roots – by playing wooden instruments, that’s a good thing to do, and people have noticed it.
Gypsy Project in Oakland, California
You had a chance to play with Stéphane Grappelli, didn’t you?
A few times, yeah. I met him in 1980 when he came to Strasbourg. He was playing there with Niels Pederson on bass, Larry Coryell and Philip Catherine on guitar. So I went there with my father to check them out. We went backstage, I think during the intermission. Some gypsies grabbed me a said, “You have to go and meet him. And he has to hear you.” So I took my little guitar and I played a few things backstage, and five minutes later I was with him on stage. And we ended the whole second part on stage. I have played two or three times with him. Usually, when we shared the same stage, which happened once in a while, he would always tell me, “You got to stick around and come and play with me.” But officially, on records or stuff like that, we never recorded or toured together. That wasn’t the case.
How old were you when you played with him the first time?
The first time, I must have been eleven maybe.
Eleven! It must have been pretty exciting.
Oh, I couldn’t believe it. Here was a man that you listened to for years on records next to Django and all of a sudden you find yourself with him on stage. So I remember as a kid that I was incredibly impressed by that.
It must have been a big incentive to continue playing as a career, I would imagine.
Yeah, he gave me a big boost. Then after that I really realized that, here we go, that’s what I want to do.
I’m thinking of other violinists that you have played with. You’ve played with Didier Lockwood, with whom you seem to have a great rapport. How did you first start playing with him?
I’ve known him for twenty years. Our managers set that up. We thought it would be a great idea to get together and play. We think the same way. It just goes without any rehearsal, that stuff. And we play as a duet. Just like you saw us in Strasbourg.
It was as full as it needed to be.
Yeah, so that’s fantastic. We get along musically very well. When I play with Didier, we never rehearse. A half hour before the gig, we decide what we’re going to play, make a list of tunes and pick a few out.
Wherever the moment leads us, yeah.
Well he’s another story, as you can imagine! He comes from the east part of Europe so he’s very “umph”, you know, a tough guy. But a great guy at the same time. He has a great heart. We get along of course musically, but humanly also. I think when I put together that project, I thought of him and I said to myself, “Well, the way he plays can only fit the best in that kind of music.” He plays classical music beautifully, but he also plays jazz and he loves Stéphane Grappelli. He checked Grappelli out when he was a teenager just as much as I did for Django. So he knows every bit about it.
I recall seeing one of your first Gypsy Project concerts in Strasbourg back in July of 2001. Did you think at that point that it would last this long?
No, because I like to move around. I like to do a project that lasts about a year, then I usually go on to something else. Now, of course I’m not going to play it forever – I like to check out as much music as possible. But it seems I feel very comfortable. Because the guys that are surrounding me are more than easy to live with. They’re not only musicians, they are good friends. There is always a good harmony. There are two factors – I like to play that music and the audience likes it very much. In Europe, record sales are more than comfortable, so I have to keep doing it a little bit more!
There are very few people who can play it at such a high level. Do you think you have to be born a Gypsy to do it?
If you say that, it really sounds radical. It puts the motivation away for non-Gypsy musicians who like that music. I would never say that. Of course, we play it differently because we grew up in it, so it’s a whole different story. It’s like Spanish music, when you listen to those fabulous Spanish guitar players who play all that wonderful Andalusian music, it’s their thing, because they grew up in that culture. So it’s tougher for people who didn’t grow up with that music.
Hono Winterstein, Biréli, and violinist Martin Weiss
How did you get into improvising? I imagine when you first started, you copied the solos of Django?
That’s right. I tried very hard every day, eight hours a day.
Yeah, I’d use up all my diamonds, because I’d go back and forth. As soon as I heard a lick, I had to listen to it a few times until I got it right. It was self-discipline. And that’s maybe why I became who I am now, musically, because I am quite a perfectionist. I like the music to be played right on stage. Because we give something to the audience, that better be good!
No, I couldn’t. I would just go back with the needle and listen to that particular spot until I more or less got it right. And I could play most of the solos at that time. But when I turned fifteen, I wanted to go fly with my own wings and I left it behind. I didn’t move to another music because I was fed up with it. It just came naturally that I started doing something else. I was also encouraged by a lot of my friends. They said, “That’s enough. Try to find something of your own.” So I did that, and now I can’t remember any solos of Django. I play in that manner, but personality and maturity has a big role in it.
Was it the case that somebody would figure out a lick or a solo and then show it to a friend?
Yeah, me and my cousins. My cousins were all great guitar players, too. I had one particular cousin and me being a kid, he would come over once in a while and he would show me some licks, what he found out about Django. But I was always ahead of them. Most of the time they would come to me! Because I had more time to spend than they did. They were all a lot older than I was.
I know some of them now. But to tell you the truth, I’m thirty-six and I play about the same sloppy way now. Chords I can read pretty easily, it’s the notes that I can’t read.
When you play, do you play thinking of the chords, or are you thinking of the melody? What is it that goes through your mind when you improvise?
I know what kind of chord I’d expect to come when it is my turn to play a solo, so I can kind of figure it out. At the very moment, I think about the general chord. But you don’t think of it, because, once you know the tune, you don’t think about what is going to come. It’s a sort of automatisme.
Yeah, I think what is more difficult is to know the neck very well. To know where every chord is and where every note on the neck is. Instead of learning a tune, my theory is you have to learn where every note is on the neck. Like a C, you have to be able to play it in four or five different positions. And when you don’t know that, that can be a struggle for any tune. So I spent a lot of time on that.
The other thing I’ve noticed when you play – you are always having fun with it. You must take it seriously but you always seem full of joy.
Inside myself I take it very seriously, but it is not what I reflect to my friends or to the audience. And I like surprises, you know. I couldn’t go on stage knowing ahead what I’m going to do. That’s why, with the guys, we walk on stage and we have no list. We have no sequence of tunes. We just go on stage and whatever comes to my mind, we play.
I don’t know. I always wait until the few last people who clap. Then I go, “now it’s time to think of another tune.” And sometimes, honestly, if nothing comes to my mind, I can sit there thirty seconds without having an idea. And it’s not routine, you know, ‘cause that’s something I hate – being a routine musician. I don’t like concepts. When you know what you’re going to play, it takes away the spontaneous moments. So everything is open. We know the tunes, that’s for sure, but anything else comes as it comes.
Your solo introductions seem always to be different.
Yeah, those are. Sometimes I have a hard time with those, because I don’t know where to start and what tune I’m going to lead into. How do you call those guys walking on that rope?
Yeah, I like that very much and it counts a lot for music, too. But you have to have certain skills and certain knowledge of music. You have to be a 200% musician to be able to get to that level where you just let music come at you.
So how has it been playing with Florin? Was he used to being as spontaneous as you? He was a classical musician…
But he always played jazz. He grew up with that, too. Balanced both very well. He was very attentive – to see how I’m going to react and how I behaved musically. But he got it real fast. He likes to play. Sometimes I have to stop him, because he would go on, play a solo for two hours. He’s filled up with music.
Would you mind getting out your guitar and talking a little about your playing style?
The secret of this music is not that much the left hand, it’s more the right hand. The pick is very important, too. You have to have those thick picks to have the round sound. When I play that music, my wrist automatically inclines, like a broken wrist. But if I play on an electric guitar, my wrist lays right on the bridge. Because if I do it while playing the Gypsy music, I don’t have enough strength when I play with my wrist on the bridge. It has to be floating, sort of. And this is where the sound comes from. [He plays the same lick with the wrist floating and then resting on the bridge.] With the wrist on the bridge, it doesn’t sound as powerful. It’s a little different approach.
I play with the rounded side. It’s a much warmer sound. It shouts less.
It depends. When I play solos, I mainly use that part (the wrist) but that part (the forearm) goes with it anyway. When I play rhythm, the forearm moves more.
That came later. I got aware of that when I was fifteen or so. There were things I used to do when I was a kid, that run that went like…
So I would do it, but unconsciously, almost. I fool around with that a lot more now. I don’t see the guitar to be played from up to down (in a single position). It should be used that way (up and down the neck) also.
No, it’s just because I love violin players, and what the classical violin players have written. The composers. And on violin, you have to play like that because you only have four strings. You have to do a lot of runs if you want to do something complicated. I’m very influenced by that. A lot of people have told me, and it is true, that my playing is very much like a violin player’s.
To see the runs, the shifting. I’m a big fan of that.
I fool around, yeah, [laughs] a few years ago, yeah. I fell in love with the shape of the instrument. It’s one of the most beautiful sounding - if you can make it sound like Grappelli or somebody, it’s so heart-touching. But it also can be very rude, when you don’t know how to play. It can make all kinds of noise, and give you goosebumps, too!
Listening. Keep your ears open and play with it. I learned just by listening. I would listen (to Django) five or six hours a day. So for me it was already in here, up in my head. I didn’t have to think about it more. I was surrounded by it. Now, you can’t ask anybody to do that every day – it’s a hell of a jump.
Did you ever have any “aha” experiences?
Sure. Certain things. This lick here took me quite a long time to figure out.
And all these chords. I think Django made them because his two fingers were burned. Because these two were already in position, then, so he didn’t need to do much.
Those are those specific Django chords. And they sound so full at the same time.
Yeah, I had to, of course. But not long, though, because otherwise I’d lose the orientation of the other two. But it works.
[Plays some runs with just two fingers.]
But I don’t do it, as a matter of respect. It’s nice to know a little bit of it. You’d never be able in a million years to play like Django with just two fingers, but I think every guitar player fooled around with it.
That is an open door. I have no prescription for that. It just goes with the flow. I do a lot of upstrokes sometimes.
Depends. If it’s a ballad, I use more vibrato. Less for the faster stuff.
I like Hungarian music a lot, the traditional Hungarian music with cimbalom, two violins, clarinet, accordion also sometimes. I like that a lot. It’s hard to play but sometimes I play that, yeah. It’s very sad, very triste kind of music, makes you cry most of the time. Absolutely wonderful music, though.
He’s aware of that. But his style is even different, because he’s a Romanian Gypsy. So they have their own bag which is completely different from what the Hungarian musicians are doing.
I don’t plan. I don’t like to plan ‘cause then when you can’t do it, you’re more sad than anything else. Just go on and see what kinds of ideas I have, and when I have the right idea, most of the time I’ll go for it.
Have you ever thought about using the Hot Club Quintet configuration but playing a different kind of music? The acoustic violin and guitar are such a great combination, it would be wonderful to see where you could go with it.
That would be. With Florin we do that once in a while when we get together on tour, in a hotel room. We like to fool around with different types of music.
So maybe some future project?
Yeah, who knows?
Biréli’s U.S. tour featured Florin Niculescu on violin, Thomas Dutronc on rhythm guitar and Diego Imbert on bass. The “Gypsy Project” has released several CDs on the Dreyfus label and there is talk of a live DVD to be available soon. Check out the web site at www.lagrene.com. Many thanks to Yoshi’s Jazz House and Christian Pegand Productions for their help arranging this interview.