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.

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Album of the Week: On the Track, Leon Redbone

Let me be clear about something: I am a Yankee. I have not spent very much time south of the Mason-Dixon line, and certainly not in summer. I therefore have no great experience with the kind of syrupy, incapacitating heat that forces you to stay on your front porch, immobile and slowly sweating as the sun rises and falls.

However, if I was in that position, this is the album I would play.

If the name Leon Redbone isn’t familiar, you will recognize him either from his appearances very early on as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, or from his duet with Zooey Deschanel on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from the movie Elf. The fact that the same man appears in two radically different generational touchstones—you just dated yourself, Dear Reader—is a testament to his quirky but enduring appeal.

In this, our post-Mumfordian era, a man who consciously dresses like he’s from the 1920s and reinterprets the Great American songbook isn’t that strange, but when On the Track came out in 1975, I imagine it was a bit shocking. The entire album featured music written 40 years ago—music that the average Saturday Night Live viewer’s parents listened to when they were kids. And though Redbone was hardly very old himself in ‘75, his renditions of these songs evoke genuine comfort with his material.

Redbone’s voice is undoubtedly the first thing you notice. He sings the way a gentle grandfather might, if this grandfather marinated his vocal chords in tobacco and had a potato permanently down his throat. For all its bizarre timbre it is a supremely likable voice, warm and full of character. Nowhere is this clearer then when he does a sort of scat singing midway between trumpet and human voice on songs like “Marie.” Redbone dubs this “instrument” the throat tromnet, and it’s the kind of affectation that a lesser talent, or a more self-conscious one, wouldn’t be able to carry off.

His voice is so mesmerizing that it quickly overshadows his guitar playing, but it too is a marvel of idiosyncrasy. He frames chords rather than playing their full voicings, and his fingerpicked approach coupled with the small-bodied guitar he favors provide a nice mid-heavy counterpoint to his voice. The double-time section in “Some of These Days” has much in common with ragtime piano—no accident I’m sure—and showcases Redbone’s deft fingering.

The arrangements are purposely low-tech and a little scattershot, again presaging the low-fi approach favored by another generation of revivalists (looking at you, Jack White). They feel intimate and warm, but it’s not an album that embraces so much as it refreshes you. If you’re sitting on that sticky, humid front porch, On the Track is a tall drink full of ice.

And that is the true beauty of Redbone’s approach. By scaling everything down and treating the material in his own humble way, Redbone removes these songs from the flash and dazzle of the stage or the concert hall, and puts them back where they belong: in people’s homes.