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In late-August, 2005, powerful Hurricane Katrina compromised an inadequate U.S. Federal levy system leaving 80% of the city of New Orleans under water. Among the over four-thousand displaced musicians was clarinetist Evan Christopher, a California native who first moved to the Crescent City in 1994. With little more than his clarinet and a suitcase full of clothes, Christopher chose Paris, France for his exile at the invitation of the City of Paris. During this artist residency, funded by an American program called French-American Cultural Exchange, he worked diligently to raise awareness about the musical culture of New Orleans through concerts and masterclasses. He also formed his own groups, the JazzTraditions PROJECT and Django à la Créole.
For Django à la Créole, the idea was simple enough: Spice up the Hot Club texture pioneered by Django Reinhardt by emphasizing hallmarks of New Orleans Jazz including blues, rhythms of the monde Créole, and collective improvisation. The project debuted in August 2007 with performances in Great Britain and a small international jazz festival in Haugesund, Norway. As early as February 2007, Christopher began commuting back to the United States to work with touring New Orleans groups but in December, just prior to his move back to New Orleans, he made this recording. The quartet released the CD in New Orleans during the 25th anniversary of the famous French Quarter Festival.
Christopher and his colleagues took their primary inspiration for Django à la Créole in the legendary guitarist's collaborations with American musicians, which included New Orleans clarinetists on several occasions. In 1934, Django performed and recorded with the New Orleans Créole clarinetist Frank "Big Boy" Goudie who had moved to Paris in the mid-20's. However, the most significant precedent for the fusion of New Orleans clarinet with the Gypsy Swing style was a loosely organized recording session in 1939 with Duke Ellington sidemen Rex Stewart and clarinetist Barney Bigard. When one hears Bigard's fluid lines and distinctly New Orleans sound artfully juxtaposed with Django's angular, virtuosic flights, it hardly seems coincidental that just a few months later, Django used violinist Stéphane Grapelli's departure as the perfect opportunity to use clarinetist Hubert Rostaing in the role of the Hot Club's lead instrument. Rostaing's style was, of course, heavily influenced by Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, but on several recordings his warm, woody tone in the low register, rhythmic flexibility, and contrapuntal interaction with Django is more evocative of players such as Bigard or Omer Simeon.
In a favorable review of this CD, Alison Kerr of the Scotsman reminds us that "CDs invoking the memory of the great gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and his recorded output are ten a penny." So, to necessarily distinguish Django à la Créole from the myriad other efforts, Christopher took the advice of New Orleans piano professor Jelly-Roll Morton who said, "For jazz, you've got to have that Spanish Tinge." Morton was referring to Latinate rhythms, especially the sultry Habañera, that have infused the popular musics of New Orleans from the earliest days of jazz to the present. The group strives to season well-worn repertory with rhythms from New Orleans, Cuba, Brazil, and the Caribbean. In these instances, such as the opening track DOUCE AMBIANCE, the rhythm guitar and bass work in tandem to create a bed of syncopations on which the melodies can float. For the group's more swinging vehicles, requisite are referentiality to New Orleans or nods to the most significant early jazz innovators. For example, FAREWELL BLUES, recorded by Django with Benny Carter is a 1923 standard composed by members of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.
DINETTE, Django's contrafact based on DINAH gets a Cha-Cha-Cha treatment with David Blenkhorn evoking the color of the Cuban Tres. Not content to simply recreate one of the jams that paired Django with the Ellingtonians, Christopher tries to imagine what the Hot Club of France might have done with I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW if they had heard the classic 1928 rendition by Jimmy Noone. A Bolero take on Django's classic ballad MANOIR DE MES REVES uses introductory material from both his 193? and 194? versions. Rex Stewart's LOW COTTON is only slightly embellished here. "Lowness" is emphasized by an unhurried tempo, bluesy bass solo, and Christopher's use of the clarinet's most profound register even below it's usual range. Two of Django's most famous compositions NUAGES and MELODIE AU CREPESCULE transport us to Havana then Rio De Janeiro. INSENSIBLEMENT, like a Creole lullaby, slows the pace for a bit of romance before the closer which combines two pieces, TEARS and DJANGOLOGY, into a single Mortonesque Spanish-tinged rag.
This re-working of tradition is the main goal and focus of Django à la Créole. These virtuoso musicians know that the style-specific language that anchors them in the respective traditions of their instruments must be rendered faithfully and personally before they can be reinterpreted. Anything less would be at best unimaginative repertory, or a museum piece; at worst music for nostalgia's sake which inevitably reduces art to a parody of itself. Lastly, it should be stated that the group's hope for this CD recording marks an attempt to return to an earlier model for jazz. Another important aspect of traditions, especially jazz, is that they do not evolve naturally in the vacuum of the musicians' creative world. The listening audience must help to celebrate the traditions as well. Instead of a performance inviting one to purchase a CD, Christopher and company hope that this recording will serve as an invitation to experience their music the way it was intended. Live.