Saturday, May 20, 2017

Electric Django

It is often argued that when Django returned to Europe after his US tour with Duke Ellington, the new influences he had absorbed had changed his playing forever. Sure, with Duke he had played an electric archtop for the first time in his career (he simply had not taken his acoustic Selmer with him on the plane, not even a toothbrush as a matter of fact ...) but the following statement from Michael Dregni's book seems to stretch it a bit:
"He came to America playing swing. He returned to Paris playing modern jazz."
I think this is only partly true. You don't change your way of playing overnight. That takes a few years. His style had been developing since the late 30s and many of the traditional gypsy elements had disappeared already at the end of the war, in favor of a more modern approach. Listen to this take that was recorded during the historic tour with Duke in 1946:

It already sounds remarkably modern to me. He must have been assimilating the new jazz sounds for a few years ... And he really sounds quite comfortable with the Gibson L5 archtop he is playing. The guitar was fitted with a DeArmond pick-up and amped by a small combo amp. He never seemed to like archtops though. He once called them "tinpot guitars." When he returned to Europe after the war he put a Stimer pick-up on his Selmer.
 At the end of the war recordings from the USA started to filter through to Europe and in 1946 Django at last went to America and heard the developments of the "new" jazz firsthand. It was here that Django played an electric guitar for the first time. Listening to the few tracks recorded with Duke Ellington it sounds as though Django has also got hold of a good amp for the day. He has that uniquely big tone, but very little of the distortion which is characteristic of his early attempts to record with electric guitar. 
By 1949 the Bebop influence on Django's playing is obvious. His lines sound more and more Christian like and at this time he only plays his Selmer through an amp. Here's an old Stimer ad in which Django endorses his gear (pick-up and amp):

In 1951 Django put together a new band of the best young modern musicians in Paris including Hubert Fol, an altoist in the Charlie Parker mould. Listen to these 1951 clips of that band and what you hear is eh ... a bebop guitarist playing bebop.

But time was running out for Django. He did not record much in 1952 but in his final half year of life he produced some very interesting recordings on electric guitar, on March 10 and April 8. Another quote from Wayne Jefferies:
The March 10th session produced 8 absolute classics, including arguably his greatest rendition of Nuages. despite a couple of great swingers in Night and Day, and Brazil the whole atmosphere of this session is somehow permeated with a great melancholy. Evident on all the tracks is a strange mixture of sadness, beauty and depth. Manoir de Mes Reves has an air of quiet acceptance. It is very peaceful, but at the same time there is an almost unbearably desolate quality to it. As Norman Monyan observed, "its almost like he knew the end was coming."

Here's "Nuages" from the March 10 session.

And from that same fabulous recording session "Blues for Ike." Interesting to compare it with the earlier "Blues Riff" take he did in concert with Duke Ellington in 1946.

There was to be one more recording session on April 8 that produced four more takes showcasing Django as a modern jazz player. Here's "I cover the waterfront."

And from that same last session "Deccaphonie."

Django would be dead a month after this recording session. For a video account of his death click here.

I visted his house and his grave in Samois in 2004. He spent the last years of his life in the beautiful and picturesque village of Samois Sur Seine where he must have enjoyed some tranquillity, just fishing and painting.

It's easy to understand Bireli's remark that I quoted in my previous Blog entry:
"Django helped me to see what was happening elsewhere"
I'd like to close off with another quote from Wayne Jefferies. I think he sums up my feelings on the subject pretty well:
Perhaps with a little more time Django would have been accepted as a modern guitarist. As it was many of his fans would ask him "why don't you play like you used to with Grappelli". How saddening it must have been for this great man, in a sense snared by his past genius, who only wanted to express himself through the music that he felt and loved. Django's influence on the modern movement could have been much greater with another shot at America. But it was not to be. Nevertheless his place in Jazz history is assured, and for many he will continue to be the greatest guitarist that ever lived.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


In my last post I talked about chopsmeister Andreas Oberg. Well, here's an even bigger one. Bireli Lagrene. What's to say about him. He's a phenomenon. If there were an interstellar jazz guitar contest, my vote for the planet earth's contestant would most certainly go to Bireli. He's the virtuoso of virtuosos. The prodigy of prodigies. He was playing Manouche guitar at 7 and recorded his first album in this style in his early teens, But, surprisingly, he looked way further than the gypsy guitar. "Django helped me to see what was happening elsewhere" he likes to recall. And there he was, in the 80s, playing with Jaco:
During the next few years, Lagrène toured with Al Di Meola, Paco de Lucía, and John McLaughlin, all of them guitarists, and played with Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, and Stéphane Grappellii. He joined Larry Coryell and Vic Juris in New York City for a tribute to Reinhardt in 1984, and went on tour with Coryell and Philip Catherine. He also performed with Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, the Gil Evans Orchestra, Christian Escoudé, and Charlie Haden. In 1989 he performed in a duo with Stanley Jordan. 
I remember the first album I heard from him. It was his 1992 "Standards" album. NHOP is on it. He was 26 when he recorded that album. Click here to listen to it. Still a fantastic album.

A few years later he appeared on the Jazz in Marciac festival with his own trio. There is still some footage of that mind blowing set on Youtube fortunately:

I'm not going to expand on his career further. Of course you know about his duets with Sylvain Luc. His countless apperances at Samois, Marciac and Montreux. His impressive discography. These days he is one of the biggest stars in contemporary and gypsy jazz. A musician's musician that can very intimidating to listen to or watch. He switches from Gypsy jazz to Fusion to Bebop to Metal, Blues, to bass guitar to double bass to jazz violin and jazz singing just like that ... I have never seen anything like it. And he does it all well if not ridiculously well. The man is a force of nature.

In 2012 he recorded an album with with franck Wolf (saxophones), Jean-Yves Jung (orgue Hammond) and Jean-Marc Robin (batterie). The title track is calles Mouvements and is basically a Bach like fugue. Here's a live rendition. It's fun to watch:

Here's a transcription of the album version. Listen and marvel. So happy I don't have to play shit like that for a living! 

Andreas Oberg Live in Concert

I have written about Andreas Oberg earlier. I'm not sure what he is up to these days jazz wise (he's making big bucks writing and producing top hit pop tunes for the Asian market) but heck, the man has always been a player I really dig. Like Bireli Lagrene, he's one of those in-your-face chopsmeisters that some jazz snobs on the internet like to discard ("I rather hear one note from Jim Hall than ..." is what you usually get to hear ...) but that I seem to prefer with a vengeance. Such an exciting player. And yes, he's great on ballads too. Guys that can play really fast are always great on slow tunes too. That's because they can really play (yawn ... are we clear here?). Oberg is simply one of the great European jazz guitarists.

The live concert is an older one from 2006. On Youtube it is chopped into 4 parts. A regular bop fest, chops galore. That piano player (Petrescu) is insane too. Have fun ... Bop till you drop!

Click here for a playlist.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Home Recording Update

A few posts ago I was kind of enthusiastic about Audacity. I still think it's pretty cool for all free recording software. However I discovered some serious flaws, namely the fact that all the audio editing is destructive. More professional software doesn't have that. A non destructive audio editor saves the steps of the changes that occur on the sound file separately so the edited file as well as the original file are saved. At any point in time you can go back to the original wave form because it hasn’t been modified. Another serious draw back is the latency problem that invariably occurs in Audacity. You have to experiment with latency corrections before you can multi track.

So I went to better mulitracking software and ended up with Cakewalk Producer X2.  Zero latency and non destructive editing. But not free. Here's a track I recorded today. Two tracks, no overdubbing. So complete single takes. I'm still in a learning curve so I don't even how to fix glitches and mistakes yet! The guitar you hear is my most recent acquisition, a 1964 Gibson Es 125.

And also in the hardware department there were some changes made. I purchased a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface (no more hiss and noise!!!!!) and an Art Studio V3 valve preamp. I noticed that there was something missing in the amp modelling sounds I use when I make a video or an audio recording. And i am pleased with the Art Studio V3 preamp. It warms up the digital guitar sounds nicely but also any microphone will sound better through it. The cool thing about the Studio V3 is that has a preset of a number valve "voicings", suitable for guitar, keyboards, piano, bass, vocals, acoustic guitar etc.

Here's the complete signal chain of my current recording rig:

As you can see I send all the sounds through a Behringer mixer before it gets to the Focusrite audio interface that converts them to digital sound before it enters Sonar Producer on my laptop.

The stereo amp modeller is used for recording guitar but I sometimes use a mike to to record acoustic sounds. I still like the Digitech amp modeller better than the virtual amp that is in the Sonar software. I kind of prefer to have a good sound before it goes into the laptop. But it's possible too to record using the on board virtal amp in Sonar. It's not bad.

So much still to discover in Sonar. I've only scratched the surface so far ...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Jesse van Ruller Live in Zandvoort

In the interview I did with Jesse van Ruller a few years ago - one of my biggest Blog hits ever - I stated that Jesse's appearances in a "straight ahead" jazz context are pretty rare these days. I added a compilation of a few standards from a concert he did in 2010 in Zandvoort in the "Jazz in Zandvoort" concert series. This morning an internet friend hipped me to the complete concert being on Youtube. As I am writing this I am viewing it and it showcases Jesse's  marvellous playing on a complete set of standard among which "You're my Everything" "Prelude to a Kiss", "All or Nothing at All", "Stella by Starlight" and "Sandu". His guitar (the ES 150 he has been playing for quite some years now) is well recorded - what a great sound - and the whole thing was professionally filmed. Thanks PM Brown for hipping me to this. Enjoy the concert!


Jazz in Zandvoort. FILMED 3 OCTOBER 2010 in DE KROCHT in Zandvoort, THE NETHERLANDS.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Gibson ES 125

In my previous post I reported on my guitar trip to Amsterdam. I stated that I liked the 1964 Gibson ES 125 best. Sure the 1997 L5 I played was great, and the Byrdland too but ... I tend to relate the attractiveness of a guitar to its price these days. In my view,  if a recent 6k archtop sounds great that is hardly impressive. For, it would be a disgrace if it did not. But if an archtop is AND vintage AND sounds great AND is sub 2k euro, well, than that IS impressive. So a week after my trip I made an offer which was accepted and returned to the String to get that 1964 Gibson ES 125.

Checking out the 125
I have owned a 125 earlier. Actually in 1998, a 1951 ES 125 was my first vintage Gibson archtop. I gave it to my daughter years later and I sold it for her about 10 years ago when she needed some money. She always regretted selling that guitar though  ... so she was happy to accompany me to Amsterdam to get another one.

The ES 125 is the most humble of vintage Gibson archtops. It's not very collectible because so many were produced and so many are still around. After all, it was highly successful model for Gibson from 1941 to 1970. Simply because it was so affordable.  "A student model at best" I read on the vintage guitars info pages. So you won't find in the orthodontist's or lawyer's guitar collection. It has no snob appeal. However, in terms of affordable vintage mojo a 125 is hard to beat. Over here in the Netherlands the instrument has gained popularity ever since chops meister Martijn van Iterson chose it as his preferred instrument in the 90s. There is nobody on the planet that plays a 125 better than he does, trust me. And his sound is always fantastic. Student model at best huh ...

The Gibson ES 125 is a plain looking non cutaway instrument with one P90 pick up in neck position. It has a solid Honduras mahogany neck, an arched slab-cut maple back and top; mahogany sides; solid Brazilian rosewood fingerboard. The hardware includes a P-90 single coil pickup, Kluson Deluxe strip tuners, gold bonnet knobs and a chrome raised diamond trapeze tailpiece. 

The body size at the lower bout is 16". The scale length is 24.9" and the nut width 1 11/16". So in spite of the fact that it has no cutaway it is not a big guitar.

The playability may not be what you find in high end guitars. But make no mistake. It IS a vintage instrument. It is of a much lighter build - so with a thinner top - than current Gibson laminates. An ES 125 will be more resonant than what you would expect. Its acoustic sound is pretty loud. Kind of like what you hear from ES 175s of the late 1940s and 1950s, you know the ones with a single P90 pup. Here's a clip that I recorded with my 125 totally unplugged. The tune is "Angel Eyes."

My 1964 ES 125 is very much like the 1951 one I once had. I kind of like my current one a bit better cosmetically because it has a lighter three tone burst instead of the older two tone burst of the 1950s. But for the rest, pretty much the same guitar. Definitely feels the same but it may sound a bit brighter than the older one I had. I do not know much about the consistency of them over the 30 years they were produced though ... Most of the ones I see on the internet seem to be from the 1950s.

And here's a clip that showcases its electric sound (Kenny Burrell's "Midnight Blue"):

Typically, you can find a vintage 125 for under two grand. I paid 1800 euro for mine. It does have some fret issues high up the neck so I will have to spend some 150 bucks more. Most of the times that will be the case for these guitars. You'd be lucky to get one with new frets that is already in perfect playing condition. Many are pretty battered. I wonder how long the sub 2k prices will remain though. Prices ARE going up for this model.

The ES 125 is not for those that seek a shiny new guitar. The finish on these is thin in vintage style. Heck, most recent guitars will feel like plastic compared to the woody vibe the 125 generates in your hands. I love that feel. I think these old finishes (or rather, the absence thereof) really improve the sound. So if you want an affordable full sized vintage ES guitar, the Gibson ES 125 is your best choice. And your only one probably ...

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Guitar Trip to Amsterdam

The number of vintage archtops on the Dutch market has always been very limited. At any given moment in time, there's probably no more than 10-15 vintage Gibson archtops for sale within the Dutch borders. For more you have to shop abroad. In the Netherlands, it's a slow and painfully small market. Some of the more expensive models take years to sell. I actually know a few that have been for sale since 2010 in a local vintage store (!). Asking prices are often ridiculous (20k for an 1950s ES 5 ... lol ... get real) but sometimes there are a few that spark my interest. Since most of the Dutch vintage guitar stores are in Amsterdam, I took a trip on a train (hey, that's a song) with my wife and we combined some sight seeing with some guitar spotting, not all of them vintage by the way. It was a lovely spring day and Amsterdam was in full swing. What a city ... Go there dudes. It's an experience.

First stop was Diamond guitars, situated in a beautiful stately canal mansion with high ceilings that now accomodates a few businesses and organisations. A truly historic place, for in WW II, it used to be the residence of the "Joodse Raad" (Jewish Council). So those walls must have witnessed some very dramatic scenes. The Council was in fact an instrument for the occupying Germans to facilitate the smooth selection and deportation of Jews. Read all about it here.

Owner of Diamond Guitars , Wil Peters, gave us a warm welcome and I checked out a 1997 Gibson Wes Montgomery he has had for sale for a while. It was already the second Wesmo I played this week (a friend visited me with his 1995 Wesmo earlier this week) and the guitar at Wil's place was pretty similar. Very nice guitar with a deep acoustic voice. It was as clean as a whistle.

He also showed me a Byrdland that he sold earlier for a great price and was back for maintenance. I had my eyes on that one a while ago when he was selling it but I was too late then. To me it felt just like a mini L5. Short scale neck, thin body, not so deep voice. Both guitars were in mint condition and were obviously from the same era. Same finish, same woods, even the same flames in the back and on the neck. No vintage mojo though. I'm still not entirely sure if I am a high end carved top man myself.

Though he sometimes has some very nice jazz guitars in his collection, Wil's core business - and passion - is steel string guitars. He probably has the biggest offering of Lowden flattops in the Netherlands. And then there are his Martins, as well as a number of other brands (Collings, Avalon, Turner etc.) I played both a Martin D18 and a D35 and loved the lush and classic strumming sounds that I know so well from the pop hits from the 70s (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, "Horse with no Name" etc.). The Lowden flattops sounded great too. They are pretty expensive guitars so they should sound fabulous and ... they do. Upon leaving, he showed me a Gibson mandoline from 1914 that was in ... mint condition. Really amazing.

Next stop was Dirk Witte in the Vijzelstraat. We went on foot so we got a good view of the city in between guitar stores. The guitar I wanted to check out was a 1950 Gibson ES 150. The condition was very mediocre, the finish was in pretty bad condition and it had two filled holes in the headstock. The tail piece did not look original to me. It felt and played great though with tons of vintage mojo. But considering the condition, I felt the price was too steep. Nice guitar though.

Then off to The String.  I love that store. It's a small, charmingly untidy but very cozy vintage store at a very nice square and Rienk seems like an easy going guy to deal with.  It was at his place that I bought my first vintage Gibson archtop in 1998: a 1951 Gibson ES 125. I played that guitar for years before I gave it to my daughter. Rienk always has a few ES 125s around and kind of specialises in affordable used and vintage guitars from all kinds of brands. He told me the prices for even the ES 125 were going up though and that it was harder and harder to get affordable ones. I played a 1964 Gibson ES 125, a 60s ES 125t and a George Benson signed Ibanez GB 10 from 2008. Of course in the tone department the ES 125t was no match for the full sized 125. The Benson was nice but, again, I missed the vintage mojo. There is something unexplicably cool about playing old and battered guitars I guess. I am becoming less and less a fan of shiny new ones.

The bottom line. I played a few nice guitars today but the one that really knocked me out in terms of price/quality and pure vintage mojo was undoubtedly the most modest of all, the Gibson ES 125. "A student model at best" it is decribed on some "expert page" on the web. Student model my ass. Listen to anything by Martijn van Iterson. It may not have any snob appeal but it is clearly unbeatable for the money. Heck, at least, they used to be. The one I played was 2.0k ...  Mmmm. Maybe the affordable vintage era is coming to a close too. Anyway, here's a 125 in action: