From the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY GREG RUBY
The legacy of Django Reinhardt is well celebrated, but that’s not quite the case with a guitarist who was also deeply entrenched in the 1930s Paris jazz scene. On either his National tricone or his Selmer grande bouche, Oscar Alemán had an impeccable sense of swing and played with exciting rhythmic punctuations, a horn-like attack, and sharp attention to detail. And unlike Reinhardt, he was an all-round entertainer—singing, dancing, and giving great liveliness to each song he interpreted.
Reinhardt and Alemán might have been competing for the spotlight, but they also maintained a deep mutual respect. “I knew Django Reinhardt well,” Alemán recalled in Jazz Journal International. “He was my greatest friend in France. We played together many times, just for ourselves. I appreciated him, and I believe the feeling was mutual.”
Alemán emerged from the most unlikely circumstances. Orphaned at age 11 in Argentina, he taught himself to play the cavaquinho (a small Portuguese instrument with four strings) to survive. By his late teens he was traveling the world performing Hawaiian tunes with a musical revue that included the New Orleans trumpeter Tommy Ladnier. Between listening to the records of guitarist Eddie Lang and violinist Joe Venuti and sharing the auspicious company of Ladnier, Alemán learned the “the meaning of improvisation, of playing according to the feeling one has at the moment,” as he remembered in Michael Dregni’s Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend.
Alemán’s renown reached the American expatriate singer Josephine Baker, who brought him to Paris, where he was soon leading her backing band, the Baker Boys, touring across Europe in the 1930s. Great bandleaders like Duke Ellington got hip to Alemán and tried to recruit the guitarist for their own ensembles, but Baker refused, clearly valuing Alemán’s multifaceted talents.
World War II forced Alemán to flee France. On the border, he was assaulted by Nazi soldiers who stole all his money and his National guitar. Upon returning to Argentina virtually unknown, and with only his Selmer, he slowly rebuilt his career. Alemán died in 1980 at the age of 71, leaving behind a treasure trove of recordings worthy of study by any aspiring swing player—or any serious guitarist in general.
I first heard Alemán’s music on the album Swing Guitar Masterpieces (Acoustic Disc), shortly after its 1998 release. The guitarist’s uplifting sense of swing and his subtly complex phrasing were immediately irresistible—plus the music just made me want to dance. I have since spent countless hours performing and transcribing Alemán’s music to better internalize his unique approach to swing guitar.
In 2019, I released Oscar Alemán Play-Along Songbook Vol. 1, hoping to inspire musicians around the world to spend time with Alemán’s music and add it to their repertoires. The following transcription is excerpted from that book.
It’s All About the Melody
Alemán recorded the swing-era hit “Estoy Enamorado (You Made Me Love You)” for the Odeon record label on June 27, 1944, in Buenos Aires with his Quinteto de Swing. “You Made Me Love You” is a masterpiece—complete with Alemán’s spirited singing, punctuated by vocal shouts from the band; a brilliant interpretation of the melody; and fiery solos from both Alemán and the violinist Manuel Gavinovich.
While Alemán used a thumbpick and fingers, many of his pieces, including “You Made Me Love You,” translate very well to plectrum-style guitar. The song’s form is the standard 32-measure A–B–A1–C. On the four-bar intro, the chord diagrams mirror the standard notation and tab. For the melody and solo, I’ve provided suggested voicings for the rhythm guitar. Like Reinhardt with his Quintette du Hot Club of France, Alemán always had a rhythm guitarist in his band, responsible for maintaining steady, driving quarter notes with accents on beats 2 and 4. (For more on this approach, check out Whit Smith’s Western swing lesson in the May/June 2019 issue of AG, as that style of accompaniment would work perfectly in this setting.)
Alemán remains close to the melody throughout the first half of the chorus (starting at bar 5), adding hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, and vibrato to create interest and variety. Like many of the great players of the era, he often anticipates a chord change by an eighth note, as in the C# at the end of bar 12, which is the third of the A7 chord in the following measure.
When playing a melody, Alemán was clearly inclined to honor the composer’s intent. In this particular selection, he waits until measure 20 for his first actual lick. Try the lick—which starts on the root of the chord on the “and” of beat 1 and does a neat descending pivot—in all 12 keys, as it’s a good one to have at your command.
During the second chorus (beginning at bar 21), Alemán adds more to his melodic interpretation. In measure 22, he arpeggiates the C/E-to-Ebdim7 move, but then quickly returns to the melody in the following measures. Not until bars 27–32 does he abandon the melody to add punchy, rhythmic phrasing that builds the intensity and concludes with a return to the tune in bars 33 and 34. Notice how in measure 29 Alemán oscillates between the root and the flatted ninth (Bb) of the A7 chord, adding the open A string to build the phrase before chromatically descending into a D7 arpeggio in measure 31. It is pure Alemán!
Alemán opens his solo (bar 37) with a descending chromatic line that leads right into an ascending arpeggio through the C/E–Ebdim7 move, ending neatly on the G7’s fifth, D. In measures 39–41, he uses an F triad shape (fingers 3, 2, and 1 on strings 4, 3, and 2, respectively) to negotiate a G7 chord. Make sure you hammer on all three notes of the F shape on beat 4 of measure 40.
Another approach Alemán would often employ is to take one or two notes and develop them rhythmically, as seen in measures 43 and 44. Practice this passage slowly to make sure you are nailing the rhythms, and use this concept in your own solos: find an interesting chord tone or two and create new rhythmic phrases. Focusing on rhythmic ideas rather than melodic development can lead you to interesting places and get you away from chasing the chord tones.
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Measure 52 offers a great triplet lick. Use your third and first fingers for the pull-off, and after the open B, shift up to second position in order to most efficiently stop the octave As. In yet another cool move, in bars 60 and 61, Alemán bends an A up to A# while holding a Bn on the adjacent string. This half-step tension builds across two measures through an E7–A7 progression. The notes don’t change, but their harmonic function does. Look for ways to add this concept—notes that work together across a chord change—to your own playing.
Greg Ruby is a guitarist, composer, historian, and educator specializing in jazz from the first half of the 20th century. His books include Oscar Alemán Play-Along Book Vol. 1, Frank D. Waldron: Seattle’s Syncopated Classic, and Pearl Django Play-Along. gregrubymusic.com.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.