Return of Django

Keri Carlson

Rom culture carries a certain air of mystery. The Rom people, commonly called “Gypsies” in English-speaking countries, have lived in Europe for hundreds of years, interacting with officialdom as little as possible. Their origins are obscure (although an Indian background is commonly accepted by scholars) and few people hold extensive knowledge of their culture; in fact, many people have little more reference than the song “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” But give Gypsy guitarist Bireli Lagrene enough time on your stereo and he easily creates a far more exotic and adventurous scene than Cher’s sob story. Lagrene’s furious guitar-picking spins tales of carefree traveling from towns to cities. While he doesn’t necessarily clarify the mystery of Gypsies, he does make the nomadic lifestyle even more intriguing.

Lagrene grew up with the tradition of traveling with eight or nine family members, never remaining in one particular place for more than a couple of days. Once settled at a site, the family filled its nights with campfires and never-ending jam sessions. Both Lagrene’s father and brother played music, and by the age of 4, Lagrene had picked up the guitar and joined in his family’s pastime. His father, a devotee of the most popular Gypsy-jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, instilled the same love for Reinhardt into Lagrene. At age 14, Lagrene recorded “Routes to Django” and received much attention and praise for his ability to mirror Reinhardt’s playing style.

In the late 1980s, Lagrene separated himself from the Reinhardt style he was known for and branched into different genres of music, playing an electric guitar and experimenting in jazz-rock fusion. Lagrene explains that he needed to step away from Reinhardt’s influence in order to help determine his own identity.

On his latest album, “Gypsy Project & Friends,” Lagrene returns to the music he has been playing since childhood – sprightly acoustic guitar-fronted jazz pioneered by Reinhardt – and mixes it with sprinkles of Latin grooves and dynamic peaks. Most tracks feature bouncy guitar-based rhythms that could cause neck damage from the uncontrollable head-bobbing they induce. But before the chiropractor is called in, Lagrene eases into a somber mood on “Ou Es-tu Mon Amour?” Here, Lagrene steps out of the spotlight and allows violinist Florin Niculescu to take command with quivering strokes that sound as if they are on bended knee and pleading to a lost love.

Though Bireli Lagrene follows Django Reinhardt’s footsteps very closely, few musicians play Gypsy-jazz, and even fewer can play with his skill and technique. These qualities make Lagrene a truly one-of-a-kind performer.

Gypsy Project with Bireli Lagrene will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Cedar Cultural Center, (612) 338-2674, all ages, $18/$16/$10 student rush