A premier acolyte of the brilliant gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, Frenchman Dorado Schmitt is leading the centennial celebration of Reinhardt’s birth with a rare national tour. Celebrating Django@100 — the subtitle of the eight-city tour — is more homage than re-creation, a hodgepodge of tunes associated with Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France between 1936 and the late ’40s mixed with the compositions of Schmitt. The show presented in the first set Tuesday at Catalina is buoyant and musicianly, yet little is revealed about the genius in Reinhardt’s work.
The gypsy jazz style is a heady mixture of swing, speed, virtuosity and stylistic flourish that, like the big bands that inspired it, died out in the early 1950s. Reinhardt is essentially the James Dean of jazz — celebrated during his lifetime, revered since his death — and his persona has been as much a cinematic inspiration (Johnny Depp in “Chocolat,” Sean Penn in “Sweet and Lowdown”) as his lyrical playing has inspired musicians (Jerry Garcia, Les Paul, Gypsy Kings, David Grisman). Schmitt’s compositions adhere to rather than extend the Djangology concept, emphasizing the timeless quality of this joyous sound.
Expanding the Reinhardt concept by adding a button accordionist (Marcel Loeffler) to the standard lineup of two guitars, violin and bass, Schmitt and band opened with the staple “Sweet Georgia Brown,” taking it for a stroll at mid-tempo before a round of lightning-speed solos.
Here and throughout the program, Loeffler, who is blind, played spiritedly with Parisian sophistication; more than the other musicians, his solos painted mental pictures of cafes and carefree life. There’s terroir in his work.
Schmitt, whose son Samson plays rhythm guitar in this band that has made annual stops at Gotham’s Birdland, is never short of dazzling. On Reinhardt’s “Tears” and “Nuages,” his fleetness on the fretboard slows only to bend notes for a mournful effect; his stylized chording elsewhere is equally riveting.
Brian Torff, the lone American among the French who spent time in the band of Reinhardt’s violinist Stephane Grappelli, steadies the enterprise, but Pierre Blanchard’s technically sound fiddling lacked soul.
One curious element permeated the set: an unnatural treble-heavy sound mix. While the limits of recording in the ’30s and ’40s emphasized the high end in the Reinhardt-Grappelli recordings, there’s little reason to not allow 21st Century listeners to hear the music as full-bodied as possible. Erratic amplification muddied the musicians’ sonic intentions.
The Celebrating Django @ 100 tour includes stops at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa on Jan. 29-30 and the Iridium in New York Feb. 1-3, where singer Curtis Stigers and cellist Borislav Strulev will augment the act.