For the annual Django Reinhardt festival at Birdland, producer Pat Phillips introduced the young lions of gypsy jazz in tribute to the legendary Belgian guitarist who died in 1953. Sweden’s Andreas Oberg kicked off the opening set with rhythm guitarist Bronson with “When You’re Smiling” and a dazzling improvisational ride on Grieg’s “Norwegian Dance.” With a distinctive density of interplay, the duo took little time to set an exuberant cushion of sound.
Young French guitarist Samson Schmitt took flight with Django’s wartime composition “Belleville,” an adventure in bold harmonic chords played with intensity and force. A gritty tenor sax solo by Joel Frahm dominated the old Ray Noble classic “Cherokee,” a tune that well served frontman Charlie Barnet as an infectious big band theme. Frahm encored with Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” which found Ludovic Beier’s dancing digits on the accordion dueling with the big bite of the horn.
The accordion hasn’t had an illustrious career in jazz with the possible exception of Joe Mooney, Matt Mathews and Art Van Damme. Beier is an imaginative player who displays speed and can swing hard.
He can also blend decorously with his colleagues. “Shine” turned out to be a racing battle between Timbo’s hot jazz fiddle and another finger flight by Beier. Bassist and boldly defined timekeeper Brian Torff served as spokesman for the group and supported Timbo for a lesson in structured grace with the sweetly laid back “Dans la Vie,” a tune penned by the late longtime Reinhardt companion, violinist Stephane Grappelli.
All assembled for “Bossa Dorado,” a Latin-flavored piece by Dorado Schmitt (father of Samson) that was dominated by a flood of dancing arpeggios. The familiar finale was “Minor Swing,” a pulsating Reinhardt classic and a revered tune that is often said to be heard around Gypsy caravan campfires in Europe. An incredible drive and spirit dominated the bold sound of the ensemble, and the spirit of Django and his legacy survived with resounding rhythm and dignity.