The raison d'ĂȘtre of this blog is to review quality books, music, photography and other content that is seldom brought to our attention by the mainstream media.

The title EV+1 is photographic jargon for Exposure Value plus 1: increasing exposure by one stop from the metered value. Photographers use exposure compensation in order to obtain a correct exposure, when the light meter's averaged reading would be incorrect. Like a photographer allowing an extra stop of light to reach the film, I hope to shed a little light on a few under-appreciated gems.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bireli Lagrene: Standards

It is with trepidation that I review this album, as no words I can contrive will do it justice.

Some recorded performances are so insightful and virtuosic that they redefine a work and for the listener, become as important as the notes penned by the composer. A few spring to mind, for me at least, such as the performances of the Miles Davis Quintet on Round About Midnight (1956). Similarly, at least for me, many performances on this disc have become definitive jazz guitar performances of these tunes.

Bireli Lagrene who, at age thirteen, emerged to the world as a reincarnation of Django Reinhardt (Routes to Django, 1980) has, over the subsequent decades, matured and moved well beyond his Manouche (French Gypsy) origins, to explore standards on electric archtop guitars as well as fusion (initially with Jaco Pastorius, whose career marked a turning point in bass guitar playing). Lagrene has long-since taken virtuosity in flat-picked jazz guitar to unsurpassed levels; but he is also one of those rare players whose technical finesse is matched by a profound, yet seemingly effortless, sensitivity in interpretation.

On Standards, Bireli is joined by a stellar rhythm section: Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen (aka NHOP) on acoustic bass and the exuberant drummer, André Ceccarelli.

Opening with a blissful C'est si bon, the album moves on to a singular interpretation of Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise – which stands against the poetic restraint exhibited in Emily Remler's performance of Softly (East to Wes, 1988) – as a very different and much more muscular, interpretation. It is not so much a feeling of softness that is imparted by the opening of Bireli's version, as a feeling of urgency at the start of the day. Ceccarelli opens the performance with a pyrotechnic drum solo – WHAM! – then comes a repeating bass figure from NHOP, soon to be overlaid with Bireli's statement of the tune. From the outset it's clear that, far from enjoying the tranquilly of sunrise, he has overslept and is rushing out the door, brushing his hair back with his fingers and wolfing down a croissant, as he runs for the bus. I have to say I like his and Remler's versions equally – even if Bireli's version is anything but Softly.The album then takes the listener on journey through familiar tunes that is, by turns, exuberant and reflective; but the familiar is reinvented by performances of brilliance. Although the self-abandoned joy of music-making without technical hindrance is a large part of what makes this album compelling, virtuosity without insight is sterile. Fortunately, Bireli has the deepest of musical souls. To discuss each performance adequately would require a dissertation rather than a review, so I will look closely at only one of the most affecting performances: a masterpiece of interpretation and thematic development, How Insensitive (insensatez).

The delicacy and emotion dripping from tracks such as How Insensitive is heart-stopping. Fluid, but perfectly articulated single-line phrases, framed on either side by passages of chords, are tenderly played, with sparing hints of rubato, occasional grace notes, rare bent notes, subtle use of vibrato and a gentle attack. Tracks like this are destined to make a life-long imprint in the mind of any attentive listener.

How Insensitive offers a lesson in musical form and thematic development. Bill Evans cautioned against overplaying in the first chorus, as it leaves little scope for the solo to develop in subsequent choruses – and here, Bireli follows this philosophy. He introduces the tune chordally and the first chorus unfolds likewise, although interspersed with single-line phrases and occasional embellishments; his second chorus again opens chordally, though with variations: he inverts and substitutes harmonies and explores possibilities as he starts to reinvent the tune. When the third chorus starts, Bireli has done the groundwork in his solo and is able to take thematic development to its climax. He dispenses with the chordal approach, contrasting with it a single-line solo that completely reinvents the tune, turning it inside out and shining with a logic that seems inevitable – but only in retrospect. The solo then comes full circle, returning to a chordal conclusion, which sets the stage for NHOP's bass solo, against Bireli's chordal accompaniment – after which, in conclusion, Bireli recapitulates the tune. No other player I've heard, has said half as much with the same material – and much of its effect is due to his building each chorus upon its predecessor, with complete logic; and the holding back of most of his single-line playing until his solo's final chorus.

This album is unsurpassed, after almost two decades – and remains, for me at least, a definitive recording of jazz standards in a guitar trio setting.

Tracks: C'es si bon; Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise; Days of Wine and Roses; Stella by Starlight; Smile; Autumn Leaves; Teach Me Tonight; Donna Lee; Body and Soul; Ornithology; How Insensitive (insensatez); Nuages.

Blue Note, 1992

Copyright © Richard Smallfield 2011

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