Yes, both groups in the Gypsy Crossings concert have Gypsy ties; Bireli Lagrene was born into a Gypsy community in the Alsatian region of France and Taraf de Haidouks consists of 12 bona fide Gypsies from Southern Romania. But in concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall, they personified different worlds separated by more than just a continent — and the twain did not meet.
Lagrene started out as a pre-teen disciple of his Belgian Gypsy idol, Django Reinhardt, and later branched out into electric music. But he has since returned to the source with a vengeance. This was the Quintette of the Hot Club of France redux, minus one guitar, with Lagrene in the lead doing an amazingly accurate impression of Reinhardt’s style.
Lagrene caught everything — the extravagant single-string lines, the ventures into whole-tone scales, the bent notes, the rapid strumming that pumped up the rhythm, the hard-driving acoustic swing. Sometimes Lagrene would go further out into bebop than Django did, yet he usually stayed within the parameters of the style.
Violinist Martin Weiss was Lagrene’s Stephane Grappelli — the same tone, the same elegance, if a little busier in technique. Hono Winterstein laid down the basic acoustic guitar rhythm and Diego Imbert the rock-solid bass. One Django standard after another passed by — “Limehouse Blues,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” “Nuages,” — plus an occasional original such as Winterstein’s “Mimosa.” These were not new horizons in the evolution of jazz. But the music was terrific, and it swung.
Taraf de Haidouks presented a wild, unruly, always energetic goulash of music from the plains of Hungary south to Macedonia and east to Romania, the personnel of several generations shifting constantly between numbers. There were frenetic dances in the complicated meters that are common in the Balkans. Ion Tanase played a small cimbalom as if it was a rhythm instrument, beating out a pitchless tattoo with his mallets. Occasionally the elders of the band would revert to more traditional forms — boisterously sung dialogues between the violinists, half-sung-half-spoken solo features.
The only thing both bands seemed to have in common was the role of the bass, knocking out steady, at times surprisingly similar patterns that made their ensembles swing in a jazz sense.