Tag Archives: Quintet of the Hot Club of France

Tim Kliphuis: Grappelli a Go-Go

TimKliphuisGuitarists inspired by the gypsy jazz playing of the legendary Django Reinhardt are ten-a-penny but violinists emulating the jaunty, joie-de-vivre-oozing, style of Stephane Grappelli, the other star of the iconic Quintet of the Hot Club of France, are much less common. Dutch virtuoso Tim Kliphuis is a rare example – and one who is bringing a new Grappelli tribute concert to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival next week.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that a Grappelli tribute concert means a concert of music played by Kliphuis – who counts the late French man as his prime violin inspiration, along with Jean-Luc Ponty – in the style of his hero. But, in fact, it’s more than that: the music which Kliphuis’s trio will play will mostly be numbers which Grappelli wrote, and which have seldom been performed, least of all by their composer.

Indeed, it may be news to most of us that the grand homme of jazz violin produced enough compositions to fill even half of a concert. However, Kliphuis says:  “We’ve unearthed compositions that people won’t have heard performed – certainly not by Grappelli, and not by anybody else as far as  I know. I want to show how lovely they are.”

But why is it that we don’t know about Grappelli as composer? “Well, it’s his own fault,” laughs Kliphuis. “It’s because he didn’t play his own tunes. He just wrote them, and he would record them on an album – that’s how we know them or they would have disappeared completely – maybe once, maybe twice and that was that.”

Like many jazz greats, Grappelli didn’t vary his concert repertoire too much as he grew older. Kliphuis says: “His original tunes were probably not as well known by his accompanists, and I think he was very happy just letting his accompanists play what they knew and what they were comfortable with – and not rehearsing too much. So he recorded the tunes – to get them on record, have a document of them – but in concerts, he’d play well-known tunes, hits like Sweet Georgia Brown and Crazy Rhythm. He wanted an easygoing approach which of course works, so the show would be fun because the musicians were enjoying themselves and not reading or thinking too much.”

We know that Grappelli co-wrote (with Reinhardt) many of the classic Hot Club tunes, but when did this solo composing take place – all the way through his career?  “It started in the 1940s, after the Hot Club. During the war years he was in London. His first composition is from 1942 – it’s called Jive Bomber – and there’s another called Piccadilly Stomp from the same year. Those are the first two I’ve found that are kind of suitable for playing by us.

“I’m sure he composed tunes between the 1940s and the 1970s but you don’t see them until the 1970s because then he would record a song on an album somewhere. With me being very much into Grappelli’s style as a fiddler, any record that I’d see that I didn’t know all the tunes on, I’d buy – so I ended up with a lot of different recordings of Sweet Georgia Brown but I also found some unfamiliar songs that I had to check out.”

It was a ballad called Souvenir de Villingen that first alerted Kliphuis to his hero’s composing skills. “It’s slightly unusual, quite modern and classical sounding. And of course he plays it very beautifully. It’s a melody you remember.” In all, Kliphuis reckons, Grappelli probably wrote between 20 and 30 compositions. “I know ten or 12 of them well, and I play eight of them that I think are great. So it’s like that – there’s a percentage that are not quite up to the standard of great songs but there are a few that are really good and so we’ve taken those and put them in the programme, which will also include his big hits and songs that he was fond of playing.”

The “we” that Kliphuis refers to throughout our chat is his regular trio, the other two thirds of which are Scottish. Since 2006, guitarist Nigel Clark and bassist Roy Percy have worked regularly with Kliphuis, both in the UK and abroad, and the unit is very much a working band – a rare species in this day and age.

One of the reasons it works, says Kliphuis, is because – like Grappelli – they all love classical music. “That’s probably the thing that binds us. The love of classical music translates itself in a wish to be kind of dynamic, to have really high points and low lows and to have a range of emotions in the music we’re playing– we don’t just play swingy stuff, where you do a set of swing and another set of swing. We are trying to go beyond that and to get more emotion in our concerts and they are both looking for that as much as I am.”

* Tim Kliphuis Tribute to Stephane Grappelli, Palazzo Spiegeltent, Edinburgh, Friday July 19 at 6.30pm. For info & tickets, visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

(First published in The Scotsman, July 15 2013)

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Django

If there’s a gig at any jazz festival which is guaranteed to attract and delight punters who ordinarily wouldn’t touch jazz with a five-foot pole, it’s the one with the Django Reinhardt-inspired band. Thanks to the fact that, over the last 25 years, the genius gypsy jazz guitarist’s extremely accessible style of music has been heard on everything from Renault Clio adverts to movie soundtracks (Belleville Rendez-Vous, Chocolat), it’s familiar beyond the jazz world – and popular in its own right.

The Edinburgh Jazz Festival, in one of its smarter moves, has picked up on this year’s centenary of the guitar legend and has even more Reinhardt-style bands in its programme than usual. Reinhardt – actually, I’m going to call him Django, because nobody ever calls him by his surname – may have been dead for over five decades but his pioneering gypsy jazz guitar playing and legacy of recordings have undoubtedly inspired more imitators and tribute bands than any other jazz musician’s.

Why? Well, there are various reasons. One is that he was the greatest and the first; a true original who fused his native gypsy music with the swinging jazz that he heard on American records in the early 1930s. You only need to watch Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown – the fictional story of “the world’s second-greatest guitar player” – to see how a musician could become obsessed with mastering the Django style. There are, unsurprisingly, an awful lot of Django anoraks out there.

If you’re a natural-born show-off who’s a gifted guitar player, imitating Django’s digital gymnastics is a sure-fire way of grabbing attention – while cashing in on the Reinhardt name. Similarly, a band with a variation on the classic Django/Hot Club line-up of three guitars, bass and violin (or clarinet) can also exploit the listening public’s love affair with Django’s gypsy jazz.

Another reason for the proliferation of Djangly bands is that the best-loved part of his output – the recordings he made as a member of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France in the 1930s and 1940s – is simply some of the happiest, most uplifting jazz there is. It’s sophisticated but easy to appreciate, and Django’s colourful and flamboyant flights of fancy – all the more impressive when you realise he was limited to the use of only two fingers on his left hand as the result of burns sustained in a fire when he was 18 – have been credited with paving the way for such great rock guitarists as Jimi Hendrix.

For me, Django’s appeal is multi-faceted. As both an improviser and a composer (of such beautiful ballads as Manoir de Mes Reves, My Serenade or his big hit, Nuages), he has a unique way with a melody; on slow numbers in particular there’s an ethereal, melancholy quality which is unmistakably his. Faster tunes showcase his wit and astounding dexterity. On solo numbers, or numbers with guitar and bass accompaniment, he brings so much drama and excitement that when you play them back in your mind you feel sure there was another soloist in there: play I’ll See You In My Dreams and hear what I mean.

In Django’s hands, the most familiar tunes go off in unexpected directions. Just listen to the wonderful, bright and optimistic-sounding chord with which he prefaces the chorus of the Marseillaise (renamed Echos de France) on the first recording he made when he was reunited with Stephane Grappelli after the war.

Of course his partnership with Grappelli is another reason for loving Django. That they came together in the early 1930s – they hit it off when they were both in a dance band at Paris’s Claridge Hotel – was fortuitous, but the fact they were able to keep the sparks flying throughout their collaboration is something to be thankful for. Their recordings in the late 1930s are as thrilling as the first ones, and even after a six-year separation during the war years, the magic was still there. Their partnership is one of the miracles of jazz. The recordings these men made as part of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France simply exude joie-de-vivre. Their playing, while dazzling in its virtuosity, has a warmth and casual but jaunty elegance about it that defeats many of their imitators who may be wizards at mastering the technique but can’t conjure up the jubilant, spontaneous spirit of that archetypal French jazz band.

And the Frenchness, that certain quelque chose – in this case, a beguiling mixture of playfulness, whimsy and laid-back charm – is another factor in my love affair with Django and his music. Of course, his playing was an expression of his restless personality which many friends and colleagues described as infuriating. He was an unconventional, lackadaisical and often unreliable character who had to be taken in hand by the older Grappelli to get the recordings done.

This was a guy who kept a pet monkey, turned up for formal concerts in odd shoes and splashed his cash from his first Hot Club recording date on a giant white stetson. Listening to interviews about Django, it shines through that – like such other eccentric geniuses as Lester Young and Thelonious Monk – there was huge affection for him despite his often exasperating idiosyncracies.

Django was not only the first European jazz musician to be revered by American players; he was also the first jazz musician to sound European: to give jazz, as the Glasgow-born guitarist Jim Mullen put it, “a local perspective”. His sudden death from a stroke, at the age of just 43, deprived the world of a true musical pioneer who was still exploring and evolving, pretty much to the end. Lucky for us he left more than 800 recordings which continue to delight and inspire successive generations of young players to offer their own take on Django’s jazz.

* The Edinburgh Jazz Festival begins on July 30. A special Django 100 theme runs through the festival. Visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.co.uk

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