Song of the Week: Billets Doux, Django Reinhardt et Le Quintette du Hot Club de France

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Scroll down to listen to “Billets Doux” by Django Reinhardt et le Quintette du Hot Club de France (opens in Spotify)

I’m almost certain there are no recordings of Django Reinhardt singing, but when he emerged on the jazz scene in the 1930s, he indisputably represented a new voice.

To understand how important he was, try to imagine what jazz looked like in the 1930s. Not only was it insanely popular dance music with a rebellious edge, like rock & roll or hip-hop later in the century, but it was almost exclusively played by Americans (generally African-Americans) wielding trumpets, trombones, and maybe pianos.

Reinhardt and his group, the Hot Club Quintette of France, turned all of this on its head. They didn’t have any horns, or even a piano. Instead, they had three guitars, an upright bass, and Stéphane Grapelli’s violin. They played relentlessly fast, catchy music with attitude and swagger—not meekly imitating American sounds, but boldly pioneering new ones. Their style of music—called “hot swing” or “gypsy jazz”—was the punk rock of the jazz world at the time, thanks to its relentless tempos, slightly contrarian attitude, and guitar-centric approach.

“Billets Doux” (“Love Letters,” in French), is a quintessential example of the group’s style. The first half of the song is a slow, danceable swing, with Reinhardt’s tasteful, sympathetic playing laid over top. But by 1:14, the tempo has cranked way up, and the group plays with an unbridled joy that I think is still palpable more than 50 years later. The speed of Reinhardt’s phrase at 1:25 is fast enough to make Van Halen think twice, and by the time Grapelli takes his solo, the group is swinging so hard that they being to rush the tempo a bit—a classic symptom of excited, happy musicians. If you’re having a hard time understanding what “swing” is, listen to the backgrounds around the 2:00 mark: the rhythm has an unbalanced momentum to it, pushing relentlessly but happily forward. That was Django Reinhardt in a nutshell.