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CONCERT REVIEW: Van Django concert adds some heat
Vancouver-based acoustic string quartet Van Django breathed fire into gypsy jazz and left the audience smokin’ at the North Okanagan Community Concert at the Performing Arts Centre.
Named in tribute to guitarist Django Reinhardt, Van Django is Vancouver’s answer to Paris’s Quintette du Hot Club de France, founded by Reinhardt and his equally inspiring violinist partner Stephane Grappelli in the 1930s. Yet the backgrounds of the two ensembles are very different.
Grappelli spent his early years starving in an orphanage and took his first lessons from street musicians, while Van Django’s violinist Cameron Wilson was classically trained and works as much with symphonic music as with jazz.
Django Reinhardt only used his first two fingers to play because his left hand was crippled as a result of the burns he sustained when his gypsy caravan caught fire. The tragic accident that cost him the use of his third and fourth fingers gave birth to a style now emulated by countless guitarists. Yet Van Django’s Budge Schachte’s four fingers danced along the neck of his expressive guitar like a dandy spider on steroids. “I’ve got them, so I might as well use them,” he smiled.
The quartet’s rhythm guitarist Finn Manniche is as accomplished as his counterpart, Reinhardt’s brother Joseph, who would step in for Django when he sometimes didn’t turn up for a gig. But Joseph Reinhardt didn’t compose whimsical waltzes like Finn Manniche’s Waltz in the Shape of a Tree, a tune that could charm the birds off that, or indeed any tree.
The Quintette du Hot Club de France boasted a second rhythm guitarist because Django felt the need for two guitars to back him when he played solo. But Cameron Wilson’s understated, sensitive rhythm accompaniment on violin worked just as well, if not better, for Van Django.
Bassist Brent Gubbels, a younger, leaner counterpart to the Hot Club’s Louis Vola, was the only Van Django member not to have his composition included in Friday’s program. Cameron Wilson’s Tea for Three cheekily juxtaposed the notes of its namesake Tea for Two to witty effect, while Schachte named his snappy Estaban for a man in a black hat selling guitars in a TV commercial.
Speaking of television, Van Django’s arrangement of TV themes such as Spiderman and the Flintstones, interspersed with glimpses of Take Five and I’ve Got Rhythm, tickled our toes and our funny bones. And when they invited us to hum Ode to Joy in their happy jazz tribute to Beethoven, we needed no second asking. We were at our most ecstatic when Van Django played, in every sense, with Beethoven’s 5th and 9th symphonies, along with such classics as Dvorak’s Humoresque, and their encore: Reinhardt’s arrangement of Grieg’s Norwegian Dance No. 2.
Lennon and McCartney would have revelled in their rendition of Norwegian Wood. At moments, the fab four seemed to slip into the skins and spirit of that other Fab Four.
In her review of the group’s 2007 appearance at the PAC, Lisa Talesnick quoted Vernon’s guitar maestro Neil Fraser, whom the North Okanagan Community Concert Association invited, along with several of his students, to sit in the front row once more.
So it seemed appropriate to leave the last word to him.
“I love it,” he said, “The gypsy rhythm is so infectious and direct that it gets to you right away.” I agree. Here’s to Van Django getting to us again and again!
Christine Pilgrim is a Vernon-based actress and freelance writer who reviews the NOCCA concerts for The Morning Star.