Monday, December 10, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            With Django and Joseph Reinhardt plunk-plunka-plunking in the background to set up a base-line of rhythm, Stephane Grappelli lays down the basic melody of “Limehouse Blues” in a fairly straightforward way. It could have been played, as Grappelli introduces it, by almost any good tea-house violinist. So for the first few moments Django melds in with his brother Joseph and with the other members of the Quintet of Le Hot Club de France, the third guitarist Pierre Ferret and the barely-audible double-bass-player Emmanuel Soudieux.

But, the theme having been stated, Django begins to experiment with it, first playing a few trills and runs as if he is warming up.

            Then his guitar really opens up. At first, in unison with Joseph, there’s a heavy, aggressive rhythm as the violin fades into the background. Then there’s Django out front and unassailable, playing at high speed and with the utmost precision. He is possessed but fully in control at the same time - runs, trills, playful improvisations, swift as lightning, producing sounds that an acoustic guitar has no right to produce and never will produce again. And it is all that precise energy of finger-tips on strings, as if Paganini had produced a master-work entirely in pizzicato. Think how stiff and strong guitar strings are. Think of the tension on the fingers of this gypsy who was missing two fingers. It is miraculous. And all built on the pedestrian “Limehouse Blues”.

            You think Django is through, when his improvisations turn in another direction, wildly syncopating the rhythm, skipping notes, showing that in some ways European jazz guitar, while preserving ensemble decorum, was ahead of American be-bop by about a decade.

            Then the miracle is over. Generously, Django steps back as Stephane takes the last chorus, ending the side with his own creditable violin improvisations on the same theme.

            It has all taken less than three minutes. To be precise, and according to the timer on my sound-system, it takes two minutes and 43 seconds.

Django and Stephane were a team, as Stephane would sometimes grumpily remind people, years after Django’s premature death had elevated him into a legend when Stephane was only a living treasure. There are other sides they recorded in which Stephane’s violin displays genius while Django’s guitar merely shows brilliance.

But “Limehouse Blues” is Django’s side, not Stephane’s.

It is utter folly to attempt to reproduce the impact of music in words. Better writers than I have attempted it and have failed, just as I have. I am aware that the sort of response I give here could be accused of over-selling a simple, lively, entertaining piece of music. I think of Marybeth Hamilton’s admonitions in In Search of the Blues [look it up on the index at right] of those who describe Robert Johnson’s blues-guitar performances as soaring genius when they are, in truth, simply fairly good blues guitar. But I find it hard to rein in the superlatives when listening to this magnificent 1936 recording of “Limehouse Blues”. For the last few weeks, CD re-pressings of Le Hot Club have been playing in my car as I drive to and from work, and I find this particular track epitomises Django’s art.

Since the guitar was electrified – a move that Django did not live to see – many rock guitarists have been described as “God” by rock enthusiasts who take an amplified electric guitar wail to be art. Poor deluded fools. No rock guitarist has ever had the speed, precision, brio, artistry, sheer genius of Django, who did it all acoustically and without amplification.

Forget the impostors. Django was God.

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