The ongoing miracle of Stephane Grappelli kept unfolding Wednesday night at the Ambassador Auditorium. Even at 84, the great jazz violinist continues to tour the globe in amazingly optimum form, spreading the legacy of the fabled Quintet of the Hot Club of France.
For too many years, Grappelli labored in the shadow of his brilliant partner in the Quintet, Django Reinhardt, who had the good timing to die young in 1953 and thus be assured the status of Legend. But Grappelli kept on playing, and recognition finally came his way over the last two decades.
He has been recording up a storm ever since, playing with peers as diverse as Paul Simon, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Joe Pass and Jean-Luc Ponty. His recent releases on CBS include an album with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the soundtrack to the film “May Fools” and, at last, a solo piano CD, “My Other Love.”
At the Ambassador, though, a good deal of the diversity was set aside as Grappelli summoned forth the old joyous, urbane spirit of the Quintet. They purveyed mostly old standards in swing tempos, along with a fine pair of Reinhardt chestnuts, “Nuages” and “Daphne.”
True, this trio had only one guitar as opposed to the churning engine of three in Reinhardt’s day. But the sole guitarist, Bucky Pizzarelli (following son John’s appearance in town by one week), always had pertinent melodic runs and explosive chords on hand while stoking the fire with powerful rhythm. While young bassist Jon Burr underpinned everything nicely, his solos tended to be uneven patchworks.
Grappelli’s tone remains the same uniquely dusky, sweet thing that it has been for 60 years, laced with glides, dotted with gleaming harmonics, still technically adept. And Grappelli can still swing as hard as he wants; his encore of “Lady Be Good” at the end of a full program–and at a fast clip– produced the best solo of the night. Other than Nathan Milstein, it’s hard to think of another violinist in any genre who was so well preserved in his 80s.
And not only that, this incredibly gifted man again seized the opportunity to flaunt his chops as a solo pianist, rambling from “End of a Love Affair” to “Satin Doll” in one gorgeous, harmonically inventive medley. Life is unfair in its distribution of musical gifts.