An exceptional and precocious talent, Biréli Lagrène took the jazz world by storm with his dazzling speed and phenomenal bursts of improvisation. After having mastered the late great Django Reinhardt's Gypsy swing repertoire, the guitarist tried his hand at fusion jazz and rock. In fact, Lagrène had also been looking up to ace fretmen Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Jimi Hendrix for inspiration. Very much in demand, he has been collaborating with a host of well-established musicians, from Al Di Meola to Jaco Pastorius to Stéphane Grappelli. At once dynamic and lyrical, this sparkling musician is without a doubt one of the most prominent musicians of his generation.
Just like Django
Gypsy guitarist Biréli Lagrène was born on September 4, 1966 in a small Alsatian town in France. Walking in his father's footsteps, young Lagrène first picked up the guitar at the age of five. He soon displayed amazing technical skill. Lagrène Sr.'s admiration for Django Reinhardt certainly impacted on the musical development of Biréli. Immersing himself in the great Gypsy guitarist' music, he focused on fashioning his style after his master's.
At 13, Lagrène released his first album, Routes to Django (1980). Critics instantly hailed the youngster as Reinhardt's heir apparent. Follow-ups Biréli Swing '81 and 15 applied the same recipe before Lagrène set about expanding his repertoire. He notably turned to the works of fretmen Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Jimi Hendrix for inspiration.
Taking a couple of cues from bassist Jaco Pastorius, Lagrène then decided to explore jazz fusion. Both musicians toured together around Europe in the mid-1980s. Their association spawned Stuttgart Aria (1986), a studio recording also featuring percussionist Serge Bringolf.
Held in high regard by the jazz world, the artist has rubbed shoulders with influential players on many occasions. A shorlist of famous Lagrène collaborators should include the likes of John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucía, Miroslav Vitous, Lenny White and Mike Stern.
After experimenting with fusion and rock music, the guitarist started the 1990s with Acoustic Moments, a mix of unplugged and electrically enhanced music summing up the artist's output up to that point. Live in Marciac (1994) offered a collection of jazz standards, included the Reinhardt-penned Nuages.
For Gipsy Project (2001), Lagrène returned to the Django songbook in earnest. He also added a few choice cuts like Charles Trenet's La mer for good measure. Released the following year, Gipsy Projects and Friends followed the same recipe.
Six years later, Lagrène travelled further down the fusion path with Electric Side, which added samples and scratches to the mix. The album benefited from the combined talents of saxophonist Franck, steel pan player Andy Narell and DJ Afro Cut-Nanga. Gipsi Trio came out in 2009.
Meet me at the Festival
The gifted musician visited the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal for the first time in 1985. He would come back regularly. In 1989, he shone alongside fellow axemen Larry Coryell and Al Di Meola. In 1997, he offered a conquering solo performance. In 2003, he presided over a tribute concert to Django Reinhardt. Finally, in 2006, Lagrène played five nights as part of the famed Invitation series.