Saturday, July 30, 2011

July 30: Django Reinhardt, "Minor Swing"

Artist: Django Reinhardt
Song: "Minor Swing"
Album: Minor Swing (single)
Year: 1937


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While in a larger context, jazz is widely consider to be an "American" style of music, the reality is, like nearly every other genre, it is a product of many combinations from around the world.  Though there is little arguing where it rose to prominence, and where a majority of the sub-genres and off-shoot styles developed, one cannot overlook the importance of a handful of musical visionaries from around the world, without whom jazz would not have taken on its current shape.  Among these elite performers, there may be no other individual from Europe that was as vital to jazz and music as a whole as the influence and creative of Django Reinhardt.  The way in which Reinhardt approaches jazz as a genre was completely unique, and without him, the guitar (and certainly the acoustic guitar) may have never found there way to the front of jazz outfits.  Embodying the term "free spirited" in every way possible, from his personality to the tone of his compositions, there is no mistaking his work, and many of his songs have become absolute jazz standards.  In almost every way, his songs were truly decades ahead of their time, and when they first gained notice in the late 1930's, they presented a startling extreme to the more predictable, "formal" jazz that was rising.  Bringing an amazing amount of energy and flair, whilst also managing to inject a strong classical influence, there are few songs that better define the unique genius of Django Reinhardt better than his monumental 1937 composition, "Minor Swing."

The moment that "Minor Swing" begins, the European influence is completely evident, and Django Reinhardt's signature "gypsy" sound is in top form.  The emotion that comes through quickly and powerfully via the violin of St├ęphane Grappelli is the very definition of "beautiful," and yet it is also the lightly upbeat tone he conveys that sets the song aside from other jazz and swing pieces of the era.  Though the swing style had already been on the rise of a number of years, "Minor Swing" is one of (if not the) earliest fusions of the sound with any other type of music.  The way in which Grappelli is able to blend the "old and new" sounds and feelings into a single, short progression is nothing short of fantastic, and it still resonates just as powerfully today as it did more than seventy years ago.  As the rest of the band, known as Quintette du Ho Club de France, joins in, it is understandable how "Minor Swing" was able to raise the mood under any circumstances anywhere in the world.  There is a truly universal appeal to the song that is rarely found elsewhere in music, and it is largely within the free spirited tone that runs from end to end in the song.  Though not in the traditional sense of the word, "Minor Swing" is an almost irresistible dance song, and there is a uniquely captivating allure within Grappelli solo later in the song.


Along with Grappelli's superb performance, the most noticeable aspect of "Minor Swing" is the complete absence of any percussion in any way.  However, due to the exceptional performances and mood of the entire band, is is completely unnecessary, save some fantastic punctuation from bassist Louis Vola.  Though they do not overshadow the others, it is the three-guitar sound of "Minor Swing" that becomes impossible to forget, and it is not only the progression, but the atmosphere created that stands as so significant.  The pairing of Eugene Vees and Joseph Reinhardt is absolutely fantastic, as they interlock to create the songs' rhythm.  Through their sound, there is a wonderfully organic feel to "Minor Swing," and it is this element which makes the song relevant regardless of nationality or musical preference.  Overtop the weaving guitars, it is the third guitar from Django Reinhardt himself that proves to be the most stunning characteristic of all of "Minor Swing."  It is in his playing where the "dance" of the song resides, and when one looks at all the other music of the time, it is clear what a unique musician visionary lived within Reinhardt.  Simply put, in both his progressions as well as the spirit behind his playing, his performance stands as a groundbreaking moment in music history, as "Minor Swing" brings together the gypsy sound, and seamlessly blends them with jazz and swing.  Reinhardt completely ignores every single musical "norm" of the time, and it is his pioneering performance that makes "Minor Swing" such an astonishing musical achievement.

As the decades have passed, the power and relevance of "Minor Swing" has rarely let up in any way, and though many may not be aware of the song or its roots, it still finds its way into popular music and culture on a shockingly consistent basis.  Within the world of jazz, it remains one of the most consistently covered songs, with everyone from Glenn Miller to a long line of current musicians who have taken their own spin on the song.  Yet "Minor Swing" has branched out into other genres to unheard of distances, with the song being incorporated into music from artists ranging from Esthero to Belleruche to a gorgeous cover by The David Grisman Quintet.  Furthermore, the song has been featured in films like The Matrix and Chocolat, and all of these tributes cement the place that Django Reinhardt rightfully holds high atop the list of influential musicians.  One can even argue that the fact that "Minor Swing" has spread so far is a fantastic mirror to the legendarily eclectic and free-spirited personality of Reinhardt, and there are few musicians from any genre who truly embodied the mood of the music which they played.  This all works perfectly with the overall idea that music is a universal language, as "Minor Swing" brings together many different cultural influences as well as musical, and there are few songs that remain as pertinent to the development of all forms of music as Django Reinhardt's magnificent 1937 composition, "Minor Swing."

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