Django in June returns to Northampton

‘Django in June’ festival back in town

  • Andrew Lawrence is the founder of Northampton’s “Django in June” festival. Jeffrey MacMillan

  • Sebastian Giniaux will be featured Saturday. Jeffrey MacMillan

  • Tcha Limberger performs Friday. JEFFERY MACMILLAN

  • From left, Tcha Limberger, William Brunad, Rino van Hooijdank, Denis Chang at “Django in June” in 2015 JEFFERY MACMILLAN

  • Antoine Boyer joins Sebastian Giniaux on the stage at the Academy of Music on Saturday.

  • Samy Daussat performs Friday with Tcha Limberger with Les Violons de Bruxelles in the Django in June festival.

Staff Writer
Published: 6/16/2016 4:08:02 PM

Perhaps it’s a scenario you’ll find familiar: You find out about something particularly cool, then you find out said phenomenon is headquartered in western Massachusetts.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect such a thing to happen upon discovering the music of the world’s most famous Belgian Gypsy, virtuoso guitarist Django Reinhardt. Yet it’s true.

Sure, the international capitol of Reinhardt-style playing, known as “Gypsy jazz,” or “jazz manouche” if you’re feeling French, is Paris. But that genre has become a North American phenomenon in the last decade or two. 

It helps that the music is infectious —  local guitarist and founder of Northampton’s annual “Django in June” festival Andrew Lawrence says, “A lot of people who say they don’t like jazz like this music.”

Sometimes, he adds, they don’t realize that they really do know the music. It’s the kind of French guitar-centric sound most people know from movies, say “Triplets of Belleville,” “Sweet and Lowdown,” or “Midnight in Paris.”

These days, the map of North American jazz manouche, explains Lawrence, has three main points of interest. There’s New York City, and there’s a large island off the Northwest coast where “Django Fest Northwest” occurs. And the other power center is Northampton, Massachusetts.

That is almost entirely thanks to him. He had a big idea 13 years ago, and it’s safe to say it’s been a success. In 2003, Lawrence brought British guitarist Robin Nolan to town for a show. Nolan is a “gadjo,” or non-Gypsy, but his playing owes a tremendous debt to the Reinhardt style.

When Nolan came to town, a group of guitarists – somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 or 40 of them – gathered to study the particulars of jazz manouche from Nolan. Lawrence called it “Django in June.”

Local miracle

The event has grown dramatically, and in addition to weekend concerts, it involves a week of music camp, the only such camp on the continent so far.

For non-musicians, “Django in June” is something of a miracle in other ways. The roster for the weekend concerts includes hard-to-pronounce names most of us have never heard — Gypsy names are notoriously unusual — but dig a little, and you discover something remarkable.

These players may not be household names, but they possess extraordinary musical talents that hail from a long-established European tradition.

Most places in North America never get visits from virtuosic Gypsy players like Lollo Meier or Tcha Limberger. Northampton deserves its Gypsy jazz reputation.

The particulars of the style, it’s worth noting, go well beyond incorporating different solo-playing habits.

It’s an extraordinarily demanding genre, which requires of most guitarists years of effort. To really do it right, an aspiring guitarist needs to learn a different soloing style that hails from Reinhardt, but that’s just the beginning. American old-school jazz rhythms really swing, coming down hard on certain beats.

To “swing” in jazz manouche rhythm-playing requires a defter touch, and a more rigid, train-like sense of rhythm in what’s known as “la pompe.”

Snap and sting

Even the guitars themselves are different. Django played a French Selmer acoustic. The more common jazz archtop offers a mellow, bass-heavy tone, but a Selmer-style possesses a sound that’s heavy on snap and sting, with an almost banjo-like attack and little sustain. It is, thankfully, much easier to play than a standard acoustic or an archtop. It’s a good thing, too — to play the style well tends to require extreme speed and dexterity.

Lawrence’s first “Django in June” became an annual event, a weekend with great concerts and instruction from the performers, most of whom hailed from one corner of Europe or another. Every year, Lawrence traveled to Samois-sur-Seine, France, where Django died in 1953 and which now hosts the international version of a Django fest.

To play around a campfire there was, Lawrence says, something that required skills most Americans who pursue the style just didn’t have.  

So Lawrence set out to help his fellow American players move toward that European sound.

“If you hear that European thing, and you like it, and you wonder, ‘How do they get that sound?’ then’ Django in June’ is the place to come to find out.”

Now, 13 years into the endeavor, Lawrence says, a curious thing has happened. Perhaps it’s down to “Django in June” becoming a weeklong camp for aspiring players.

He wondered how long it might take for Americans to unlearn their musical accent. “Now,” he says, “when I walk around ‘Django in June,’ and I hear the way people play rhythm, I have to remind myself this is North Americans sounding like a campfire at Samois.”

For your listening pleasure

For those who just want to listen, the “Django in June” concerts are a reliably rewarding pair of evenings. This year looks like no exception. 

Tcha Limberger returns to town, after a couple of past Northampton appearances. Last year, the violinist and multi-instrumentalist pulled off something rare and beautiful: he played an entirely acoustic set at the Academy of Music, reminding the audience that, after all, the venue was made for just such a thing. 

This year, Limberger returns with his full band, Les Violons de Bruxelles. It’s unusual, says Lawrence, in that it “turns the usual Django formation on its head,” pairing three violins and one guitar instead of the other way around, as Django did in his Hot Club of France.

The other concert is a pairing of players who usually perform with others.

When he went to the campgrounds of Samois-sur-Seine in 2003, Lawrence was impressed by the playing of guitarist Sébastian Giniaux.

“Sébastian was a masterful cellist, then got into this,” Lawrence says. “He’s just a phenomenal musician.”

This year, Lawrence convinced Giniaux to join forces with young guitarist Antoine Boyer. The French Boyer, unruly mop and all, made waves in 2009, when he recorded a CD and, notably, entered his teenage years.

“He’s got the whole boy-wonder thing going on,” Lawrence says. “He recently won several competitions for his classical playing, and he’s also in a duo with a guy named Samuelito.”

Such names may not mean much except to the now many disciples of the jazz manouche style, but that’s OK, Lawrence says.

“People have come to trust that we bring performers of a very high caliber, but it’s no accident that who we have on the poster every year is Django.”

He’s found the sweet spot, Lawrence says, in inviting high-end players of jazz manouche rather than the genre’s biggest names.

“There are only a handful of really big names. If you’re gonna try to build your event by attracting the biggest names, what do you do when you run out of names?”

Instead, he focuses on bringing talented players who are willing to make a habit of coming to Northampton and being part of the growing scene of aspiring American jazz manouche musicians.

It’s a formula that has seen the music camp portion of “Django in June” grow to 200-plus students, and seen the weekend concerts grow from filling Smith College’s Hills Chapel to packing the Academy of Music.

Lawrence cultivates a specific approach when it comes to the shows he offers.

“One of the tricks with Gypsy jazz is how do you stay true to the genre without putting it in a glass case, and how do you keep it vital?” he said. “We’re always doing that dance. How can I push the envelope and yet maintain that thread that goes back to the source?”

 

June 17, 7:30 p.m.: Tcha Limberger with Les Violons de Bruxelles, Samy Daussat, $20-25.

June 18, 7:30 p.m.: Sebastian Giniaux and Antoine Boyer, $20-25.

Both shows take place at the Academy of Music, 274 Main St., Northampton. For more info about concerts or the music camp, visit djangoinjune.com.


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