From child prodigy to elder statesmen, Biréli Lagrène did it all by the time he was middle aged. His never ending search for new sounds and nostalgic returns makes him a vital listen for any jazz lover.
Biréli Lagrène was born in 1966 to a large Romani family in Soufflenheim, France. Raised by a father and grandfather who both played guitar, he and his brother picked up the instrument and carried on as the third generation of virtuosos.
Without waiting, his father taught him everything he could and the young Lagrène was improvising by the age of five. As you probably know, he followed the Django Reinhardt style of Gypsy Jazz.
Lagrène’s strong work ethic and early training, along with a musical education heavy on the Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli wing of jazz, the boy was soon a bona fide prodigy. At only seven years old, he was playing to acclaim and increasing attention. This early success continued to progress through the 1970’s. In 1978, he won an award in Strasbourg and played at a Gypsy Jazz festival broadcast live on television.
The dedication was already paying off.
Developing a Sound of His Own
At the tender age of 13, Lagrène recorded his first album, appropriately called Routes to Django: Live at the Krokodil — released by the JazzPoint label in 1981. With full accompaniment and a set pulled straight out of a thirties swing club, Lagrène did his best Reinhardt impression, a near perfect representation of the sound the teenager was raised in.
The following year, he released his first studio album Fifteen on the Antilles label. Again, Lagrène closely followed his idol, and again, he made a blistering album that kept the Gypsy jazz sound alive.
Despite his success, Lagrène was still very young, and he would soon branch out and develop his style. While he would always return to his Reinhardt roots, things would never be the same. He devoured works by the likes of Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix. His expanding musical horizons introduced post-bop and jazz fusion concepts into his work.
After debuting his new sound at, what else, a Django Reinhardt tribute show, he signed to the illustrious Blue Note label. In quick succession, Lagrène released three albums, each stepping out into new directions. 1988’s Inferno surprised listeners with a transition to electric guitar and boisterous originals. 1989’s Foreign Affairs continued the push into fusion, bringing even more rock crunch and wail. 1990’s playfully titled Acoustic Moments returns at times to echoing work of the past, but it remained firmly in the camp of his new sound.
Stunned and intrigued, audiences were beginning to follow Lagrène into this new frontier.
Biréli Lagrène: Recent ‘history’
After those three Blue Note records, Lagrène’s work never stayed in one place for very long. Now fusion, now swing, now bust-a-gut bop, now capital-J jazz. His work throughout the nineties and noughties bears out this restless experimentation.
From the full return of My Favorite Django (1995) to the Sinatra tribute Old Blue Eyes (1998) to the fusion of Electric Side (2008), Lagrène has always kept audiences guessing where he will go next. The variety of his recordings and live performances all feed back into one another, honing a control over the guitar that rivals any of his contemporaries.
In 2012, Lagrène played at a Jean-Luc Ponty tribute show with Stanley Clarke and the great Ponty himself. The three had such a good time that they stayed in contact, and when their schedules lined up, they recorded the studio album D-Stringz for the Impulse! label in 2015.
These are only glimpses into the winding, prolific road of Lagrène’s career. His discography is certainly one of the most fun to peruse in the jazz world, and it tells the story of a creative mind never at rest, never finished, never satisfied to sit still.
Now in his 50s, his legacy is already cemented, his accomplishments already towering to jazz heaven and back. But knowing Lagrène, there is a lot more to come.
The trouble is predicting what comes next…