The Essential Django Reinhardt is Sony Legacy’s new repackaging of an older compilation, The Indispensable Django Reinhardt. The two-disc set contains 36 tracks recorded by the jazz guitar legend during 1949 and 1950. While there are more complete anthologies available, any decent jazz collection should include at least a sampling of Reinhardt’s influential work. This release provides a solid introduction.
Before he more or less invented the subgenre known as gypsy jazz, Reinhardt was seriously injured in a fire. Only 18 years old at the time, he had primarily been a banjo player up to that point. The fire left him with permanent partial paralysis in the ring and pinky fingers of his left hand. Being a right-handed guitarist, it seemed doubtful that he would be able to play. Amazingly, Reinhardt developed an entirely new technique that allowed him to solo with the use of only two fingers.
The recordings collected here were made fairly late in Reinhardt’s short life—he died in 1953 at age 43. Two-thirds of the songs, those from the 1949 sessions, feature the virtuoso violin playing of Stephane Grappelli. Reinhardt and Grappelli’s partnership stretched back to 1934, when they co-founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Here they are backed by Gianno Safred on piano, Carlo Pecori on bass, and Aurelio de Carolis on drums.
The dozen tracks from the 1950 sessions are distinguished by the alto saxophone and clarinet solos of Andre Ekyan. Unlike the ’49 sessions, which consist of a mix of original compositions and covers, “Django Castle (Manoir De Mes Reves)” is the only original tune among the ’50 recordings. Ekyan’s horn playing is exquisite, particularly on his reading of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”
Any fan of Woody Allen will recognize the sound of gypsy jazz, even if he or she has never heard the name Django Reinhardt. So many of the master guitarist’s recordings have been featured in Allen’s movies over the years. In fact, Allen’s 1999 Sweet and Lowdown starred Sean Penn as a jazz guitarist who idolizes Reinhardt. Prior knowledge of Reinhardt’s injury only enhances what is already phenomenally agile, creative artistry. The Essential Django Reinhardt is nearly two hours of musical art that will amaze the uninitiated.