Charlie Anderson met up with guitarist Steve Aston to discuss gypsy jazz and some of the reasons why some people love it and some people hate it.
I met up with Steve Aston at The Paris House, a beautiful French café-bar in Brighton, and I asked him what he liked most about gypsy jazz as a genre. “I’ve probably got the same answer as a lot of gypsy jazz musicians. It’s incredibly personal, in terms of your approach both to the instrument and your relationship to other musicians. There’s nowhere to hide on either a personal level or on a musical level. It can be very exciting. It’s just incredibly personal.”
“The scene itself, although in certain pockets of it, it’s very cut throat and you’ve got to be able to ‘do it’. Generally, because it’s still a very small scene, it’s incredibly welcoming and the UK scene, we all know each other. Every year we go out to the festival Samois-sur-Seine. It’s just great like that. It is a big family. It celebrates what we’re doing.”
The gypsy jazz style is known by different names, ‘jazz manouche’, ‘hot club swing’ or ‘gypsy swing’. Steve clarified what these labels imply. “What has to be remembered, it’s only called that because Reinhardt was a gypsy. The name of the genre is just a pigeon hole. The genre ‘gypsy jazz’ as a term is probably about thirty years old. What happened was, when Django was still alive, he wasn’t called a ‘gypsy jazz guitarist’, he was just a jazz guitarist. He came from musette and the French music of the time. And so his jazz was slightly more decorative and had a heavier use of arpeggios here there and everywhere but he was essentially a jazz musician. The only real raw gypsy stuff that’s within the genre today is there’s still a lot of emphasis of waltzes. Traditional gypsy waltzes – they’re still quite an integral part of the gypsy jazz repertoire. Apart from that, it’s a name.”
Casual listeners to gypsy jazz often think that it all sounds the same. Steve responded to this by saying, “If you’ve got your ears open, it’s not really the case. Like anything, you have to love a genre to be into it. I know a lot of people who hated it and found themselves getting into it and loving it. And then being able to notice the difference between this player and that player. Hearing the subtle nuances. If you’re willing to educate yourself on any given genre, you’re gonna find which nuances you love and which you hate.”
“In gypsy jazz everything relies heavily on la pompe, the rhythm guitar playing, so it’s easy for everything to sound the same. People say with dance music it all sounds the same but if you’re into dance music you would disagree. You have this same backdrop for everything. You are either going to love it or hate it. So they’re able to take that as the backdrop and listen to whatever is being created over the top of it. It all depends on whether you have your ear open to it.”
In gypsy jazz, not everyone is, or has to be, a virtuoso player. “Like with anything, there are people who are good at it, there are people who are bad at it. It’s really important to make something swing. I know that gypsy jazz can be quite a brutal or brash swing sometimes. I know there’s two little zones. There’s those guy who get together. The better dressed the band, the worse they’re going to be. The cabaret – that sometimes gets mixed into what’s gypsy jazz. Gypsy jazz is slightly more perfectionist in what we’re trying to do in making a solid sound. With gypsy jazz, everyone’s heard of it but not everyone’s heard it. The rhythm playing in itself is quite a subtle art form to get down and be able to enjoy playing. I enjoy just playing and I enjoy being part of that. And we’re all having a good time.
I asked Steve if anything new was coming out of the gypsy jazz genre. “There’s a lot of incredible guitar players coming out of it at the minute. Biréli Lagrène. He basically left gypsy jazz behind when he was about sixteen, after being the child prodigy and stepped back into it. He really came back and reclaimed gypsy jazz about 12-13 years ago when he recorded these two new albums and he basically completely changed the face of what’s going on in gypsy jazz. And you don’t hear that everywhere at the minute because it’s incredibly difficult. Basically it’s gone from people playing over changes and doing this, that and the other. It’s become a much more solid jazz form. It’s still a very niche genre, so finding these players who are pushing the boundaries, they’re few and far between but they are there and the genre is being re-moulded.”
Steve was keen to talk about the recent developments in gypsy jazz and what the future holds. “It’s really exciting. Essentially it is how everyone imagines it to be. Everybody’s playing standards, Django standards and jazz standards in a very militant Django fashion. In the 1970s probably the biggest guys to change anything were Boulou and Elios Ferre (their father was Matelot Ferret who was one of Django’s rhythm players). Their uncle Baro Ferre was writing extraordinary music, even back in the days of Django. They really play out there. They recorded three incredible albums which is nothing like the gypsy jazz that is played now. Well worth listening to.”
“Many players played the classic Django style until 2002. Then Biréli came back. He stamped on it. In one album and a couple of gigs he said ‘this is how we’re going to play gypsy jazz now’ and everyone went ‘yeah’. and the whole of the French School changed. And the whole new generation of players, the big ones Adrien Moignard, Sebastien Giniaux, they took on the mantle. They’re not even gypsies, they’re gadjos. They became the next generation and that’s what’s made it all spill out now.
There’s a lot of people literally playing intelligent jazz music over the Django changes. And this is kind of the path it’s taken now.”
“People are starting to play with different time signatures a bit more. There’s a lot more modern repertoire. For example If a new generation band are playing a set they are not going to play the classic repertoire, it’s most likely to be new compositions, different standards and more heavily arranged tunes. That’s the way it’s going now. It’s definitely changing if not already changed.”
“The whole genre is only just being discovered. It takes a long time for something to evolve. Django is still the master and Django recorded some of the most beautiful music that we’ve got. It always relates back to Django but there definitely is room for change and there definitely is change.”
The Paris House is located at 21 Western Road, Brighton.