Sharps & Flats

A new box set of lesser-known Django Reinhardt cuts illuminates another side of the hottest jazz guitarist in the world.

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Sharps & Flats

There’s this one Gypsy guitar player in France, Django Reinhardt …”

So goes Emmett Ray’s refrain in Woody Allen’s endearing “Sweet and Lowdown.” Ray, deliciously portrayed by Sean Penn, is a narcissistic, boorish jazzman who is the second-best guitar player in the world. Ray is so drunk on the mythology of Django Reinhardt that he faints dead away when he sees the Gypsy in the flesh. The conceit works because, as jazz aficionados know, it’s nearly impossible not to become intoxicated by Reinhardt’s glorious music — or his mystique.

The guitarist was an almost hopelessly romantic figure. As a teen in the 1920s, he learned to play musette — the music of lower-class Paris — for pimps, whores and dancehall girls. In 1928, at the age of 18, Reinhardt’s horse-drawn wooden caravan caught fire and mangled his left hand, incapacitating the first two fingers on his fretting hand. But the rakish Gypsy, who had no formal education or musical training — and who never learned how to read, signing his name with an “X” — taught himself to finger with his index, middle finger and thumb. Hearing his glissandos and tremolos, it sounds as if the guitar was built to be played that way.

His collaboration with violinist Stiphane Grappelly (he didn’t change his name to “Grappelli” until the 1960s) produced a musical pairing that was sort of the jazz equivalent of Lennon-McCartney or Jagger-Richards. A foil worthy of literature, Grappelli was a homosexual, emotionally reserved, fastidiously tidy pianist and violinist. The duo’s relationship was often strained, but the results were wondrous.

Indeed, Reinhardt’s music was as magical as his fabled life. Hearing him play — whether paying homage to Louis Armstrong on “I’m A Muggin’” (a poor man’s version of “Ain’t Misbehavin’”) or ripping it up with Grappelli on “Alabamy Bound” — inspires tears because it seems tragic life is not always so luxurious and sweet. The Mosaic limited edition, six-disc set, “The Complete Django Reinhardt and Quintet of the Hot Club of France Swing/HMV Sessions 1936-1948,” includes more than six hours of sessions recorded for the HMV and Swing labels.

Unfortunately, with the notable exception of Grappelli, the rest of Reinhardt’s group, the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, doesn’t match his talent. During the Grappelli years, which make up the first three discs of this set, the Quintet featured three guitarists, a bassist and a violinist. The two rhythm guitarists mimicked Reinhardt (right down to the guitar he would play, a Selmer’s or Selmer Maccaferri’s), and hearing three guitars banging out the same chords in the same rhythm and the same style is less than inspiring. Similarly, the Quintet’s bassists generally stuck with two beat measures. If nothing else, the Quintet’s pedestrian makeup disproves the old adage that jazz combos are only as good as their rhythm sections.

When Grappelli left the Quintet in 1939, Reinhardt brought in a rotating roster of mediocre clarinetists: Some, like Hubert Rostaing, who sat in with the band on and off from 1940 to ’48, evolved from horrendous to passable; others, like Gerard Levecque, started and remained perfectly adequate. (The Quintet also added percussion at this time, an addition that will surprise some listeners who associate all of Reinhardt’s work with scratchy, drum-less 78 rpm recordings.) At this point, this set’s problem becomes an embarrassment of riches. After hearing Reinhardt unfurl epic poetry in his song-length solo during “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” or hold court with Grappelli on the classic “Minor Swing,” later runs, no matter how beautiful, seem less astounding. Even compositional highlights like “Manoir de mes Reves” are memorable mainly for Reinhardt’s playing. The rest of the band is just filler.

In 1946, Reinhardt and Grappelli were reunited, and their output until the Quintet disbanded, in 1948, makes up the last disc of this set. There are the expected highlights — a wonderfully sweet take on Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” for instance — but the effect of six years apart seems to have worn on the two musicians. Reinhardt’s, and the Quintet’s, reputation was built on those first recordings from the 1930s. This compilation shows that is rightly the case.

But the “Swing/HMV Sessions” cannot be faulted for its all-inclusive nature. The later recordings help inspire a fuller appreciation of Reinhardt’s music, and that can never be a bad thing. The exhaustive liner notes, which detail every track on the set, aren’t, unfortunately, worthy of the material. Jazz historian and guitarist Mike Peters’ observations are banal and clichid. Describing Paris in 1940, he writes, “Pimps, thieves and criminals were elevated to positions of power. The black market was kind. Such is the business of war.” Describing the effect of the Quintet’s success on Reinhardt, Peters writes: “Tailored clothes, proper grooming, a ‘civil’ way of life, all had a profound impact on altering the course of his professional career and his personal behavior.”

But the attendant questions are left dangling, never to be answered. What was this profound impact? Did tailored clothes somehow numb Reinhardt’s burning passions? And, while Peters gives cursory attention to the effects of World War II on the separate evolution of American and European jazz, this is a topic that begs for more attention. In the thousands of words Peters devotes to every personnel change, certainly some of this could have been worked in.

But these are just boring technical details. The inspiring marrow of this collection is the music. Django Reinhardt played some of the most beautiful guitar ever. And at the time these songs were recorded, everyone — even Woody Allen’s invented maestro — was only second best.

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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