My album Django L’Impressionniste is a journey to the most secret places of the guitar and the soul. It is a mirror reflecting on the most exquisite parts of the human spirit. The excursion started for me in August 2016, when I decided to open my upcoming Carnegie Hall concert with “Improvisation 1,” the first prelude for solo guitar recorded by Django Reinhardt in 1937. This extraordinary interpretation encompasses the entire spectrum of Reinhardt’s universe. It is as beautiful as it is hard to execute, original and unique in its form and use of the harmonic and technical elements. After experiencing the transformative effects that memorizing and integrating this masterpiece had on my musicianship in general, I embarked on what became a four-year pilgrimage.
I discovered that there were 17 of these solo Reinhardt pieces. At first I learned the tunes by ear, jotting down notes about how to play them. The next step was the memorization and analysis of each one of them, in order to record and perform the entire repertoire: a real and complete solo classical recital. When I recorded the pieces in February 2019, it was a very demanding process. I needed to really capture the atmosphere and the life of the 17 pieces, like a classical recording. Working for several days with engineer Eric Ritter at the Windmill Agency, in Pennsylvania, I played the pieces again and again until I got the right interpretation for each one. I wasn’t aiming for a modern sound, which at times I find very cold and impersonal. One can hear, especially on the vinyl edition, the warmth of the guitar and its many shades.
I first performed the set of pieces at the Lyon Opera House, in France, on October 19, 2019. The last step was to write down accurate transcriptions and make them available to everyone. I spent the first half of 2020 laying it all down on paper, very old-school, with a pencil and an eraser, before having the music engraved and published in a new book, Django L’Impressionniste.
“Tea for Two,” the old jazz standard, is the only piece in the book that Reinhardt did not compose. But the arrangement he created and recorded in December 1937 is done in the same spirit as the rest of his original solo works. I chose to interpret the piece a bit slower than Reinhardt; I really played it the way I felt it, without trying to copy his interpretation. It is my belief that everyone should go with their instincts when it comes to playing classical, composed repertoire like this.
The first detail to note in “Tea for Two” is the fingerpicking technique. As the song has a swing groove, Reinhardt picks in a very funky way, all tirando (free stroke), with a great equality of tone and volume between the voices. It has a bit of a staccato quality to keep the beat and the groove up. One should focus on Reinhardt’s total control of harmony, the sophisticated ways in which he moves the chords’ inner and outer voices. Reinhardt managed to turn this jazz piece into a classical/impressionist piece, without losing its original and fundamental spirit. His strength was to always apply his complete mastery of classical music, and of rhythm and of harmony, to any kind of music.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.