Inside Gerard Rouvenacht’s Westside home, the sounds and signs of France are everywhere: a jersey from soccer’s 1998 World Cup when the French team beat Brazil before a home crowd, a photo collage of family back in the south of France.
Sipping a glass of red wine, Gerard’s brother, Alain Le Lait, parles français with a visiting cousin as he straps on his guitar for another Thursday night rehearsal. Meanwhile, another well-known local guitarist, Ed Parsons, is also strapping on a guitar as he talks excitedly about another produit du France: the music this trio is about to play. It’s music straight out of France – straight out of the Hot Club of France, to be precise.
The Hot Club is where the granddaddy of "gypsy jazz," Django Reinhardt, held court in the 1930s and ’40s, bringing the dazzling guitar playing of European gypsies to the ears of the world jazz scene. "Let’s play ‘Daphne,’ " Parsons says, as Rouvenacht sets up his stand-up bass. "Yeah, let’s start with a Django tune." With no warm-up, they leap into an up-beat, high-string number like a greyhound chasing a rabbit, romping through line after line of athletic, happy-go-lucky riffs.
As Le Lait and Parsons swap off between lead and rhythm guitar, Rouvenacht’s fingers fly around the neck of his double bass, laying down the racetrack-paced tempo for this trademark Django tune. Though Reinhardt was only one of many gypsy musicians of his time, his virtuosity – as well as his prolific, spirited and soulful compositions – made him one of the jazz world’s biggest international stars. Though Django’s musical shadow has faded since his death in 1953, his popularity has been on the rise as a small but growing fan base (mostly guitar lovers) rediscover his lively brand of hyper-melodic swing. Among that fan base are Parsons, Le Lait and Rouvenacht, who together make up Mango fan Django, an acoustic three-piece group which will play the Black Forest Acoustic Society stage, Friday, Aug. 27 at 7:30 p.m. The group will also be playing at the Commonwheel Art Fair at Memorial Park in Manitou Springs, on Sept. 4-5, 2-3 p.m.
All summer, the group’s been gigging around town – at the Manitou Bakery, on Manitou streets, at the Smokebrush Theater – building up a healthy repertoire of Django tunes, as well as a mix of French folk songs, reggae and calypso. It’s a pretty amazing transformation for all three, who are individually well-known on the local music scene – but not for gypsy jazz. (Among other things, Alain was guitarist and songwriter for the now-dormant folk-rock group Wooden Spoon, Gerard played bass for B-Positive, and Ed was most recently known as Archtop Eddy to diners at the Fish Market). "I’ve never really even played jazz much before," says Alain, who has nevertheless managed to play convincingly in a genre that challenges many jazz guitarists.
Of the three, however, Parsons has the longest background as a jazz player, and he’s by far the biggest gypsy-jazz nut of the three, building up an impressive collection of hard-to-find CDs, records and videos of contemporary European, gypsy swing artists.
Earlier this year, Parsons even went so far as to buy a copy of a Selmer-Maccaferri, a guitar invented in Europe in the 1930s that has become the ax of choice for gypsy guitarists. Selmer discontinued the line in the ’50s, but luthiers around the world have continued making high-quality knock-offs of these sleek, slender instruments for gypsy jazz enthusiasts. (Parson’s guitar, by the way, was made by a woman named Shelley Parks, who plays rhythm guitar in a Seattle-based gypsy swing band called Pearl Django – get it?). In any case, Parsons says he fell in love with gypsy jazz in part because his beloved instrument, the guitar, is so prominently featured in the musical mix. While the saxophone and trumpet dominate as American jazz’s leading instruments, gypsy jazz centers on the guitar.
"With American jazz, guitarists have tended to mimic the other instruments, the saxophone, for example," Parsons says. "In Gypsy jazz, there’s a strong European influence – the folk and classical sounds – and that has influenced the sound." That also means the gypsy guitar sound has evolved a bit more closely to what Parsons feels is "the inherent nature of the guitar." (Not that Parsons doesn’t love good ol’ American-style jazz guitar. Archtop Eddy’s long borrowed the licks and styles of folks like Charlie Christian, among other New World jazz greats). Whatever the case, it is a different sound, greatly influenced by the rhythms and melodies of France, as well as many other cultures that gypsies came across as they migrated through Europe, from Moorish Spain to the Balkans, to the near east.
That sound, meanwhile, is finding a growing audience among guitarists and jazz fans – who are helping to support Djangophile Websites and fan clubs, as well as bands and nightspots that hearken back to Hot Club days in Paris. (See Mango’s site at www.angelfire.com/ma2/mango). As for Django himself, his style was also influenced by the fact that he had only two functional fingers on his left hand – the result of a fire in his family’s caravan when Reinhardt was a child.
The nice thing about Mango fan Django, though, is that they don’t just play gypsy jazz, or Django Reinhardt. Some of their most affecting songs are folk tunes written by French music laureates Jacques Brel and George Brassens. One particular tune, "Banc Public," will likely have you singing along after only the first pass. The song’s catchy melody belies the fact that the tune is actually a sardonic look at life’s many stages, from the vantage point of a park bench.
"It sort of starts out by saying how people think that park benches are inanimate objects," notes Le Lait. "But Brassen says they really are repositories for love and lovers, who come there to sit and kiss and hug." After an initial romantic interlude, in which the songwriter chronicles the couples’ idealistic plans for marriage and children, the song takes a more cynical turn. In subsequent verses, the couple grows old, looking at other young couples necking on the park bench with a mixture of envy of contempt. "It’s partly because they don’t want to do that anymore," Le Lait says with a chuckle. "But even if they did, they wouldn’t express it in such a public way. That’s Brassens, very perceptive, sharp criticism of people’s lives." Whether one gets the deeper meanings of such tunes – or even if you’ve have never heard of Django Reinhardt – you’ll likely get a big kick out of this band’s eclectic and spirited mix of tunes.