What Django Reinhardt started let no man (or woman) put asunder. Gypsy jazz (sometimes called “Manouche” after Django’s ethnic roots) is a hotbed of intensity recalling the vibe in clubs from 1930’s Paris that has come into its own with excellent jazz practitioners.
Speaking of which, Dario Napoli leads Modern Manouche and their latest album, “Joie de Vivre,” is a shining example of virtuosity and heart. It brims with lyricism and sweetness (“The Shadow of Your Smile”), impossibly energized rhythms (“Masks”), and soulful breezes (“No Regrets”). The most laid-back track, “Simple Pleasure,” allows the listener to focus on each note that Napoli lovingly elicits from his strings. His ensemble is tight and on pointe, and their affection for the music pours forth.
You were first attracted to music because of Eric Clapton. How soon did you start guitar lessons after hearing his music?
Actually about 3 to 4 years passed before I started looking for lessons. I was stubborn and decided I was good enough to learn by ear, which was quite silly and that held me back in some areas, but at the same time it was one of the best things I did for myself because I really forced my ear to become sharp.
It was a good thing that YouTube wasn’t around yet. All you could do was rewind a piece of music however many times you needed to get it down. And of course, just like when as a kid you imitate your parents and your friends, you also capture all the nuances of a dialect, the rhythms, the slight details that you won’t find on a written piece of music.
What was the first piece of manouche jazz you remember?
Although I had heard Django as a teenager, the recording quality really put me off at first, so for quite some time I didn’t go back to it. The revolution for me was watching a DVD of Bireli Lagrene and friends, live in Vienna from 2001…I could barely sleep that night, just as when I saw Clapton at 12.
It was just everything I had ever looked for in guitar playing. It was passionate, raw, true, virtuosic but musical, and a true bridge in my opinion between jazz and classical music. Then I discovered Jimmy and Stochelo Rosenberg and of course, made my way back to Django.
What was unique about Django?
Besides the obvious aspect of playing single notes with only two fingers (he used all others for chords, including the thumb), Django was pure poetry. He was an improviser in the true sense of the term, a rare musician who could always surprise you. Even though he had his cliches, he was always able to sound fresh, new and unpredictable. He had the technique, but you never felt he needed to solely rely on it to express himself.
He could play relaxed, strong and passionate, or cheerful and joyous, and you never truly knew what would come next. Every take, every version was its own story. He was also a great composer and songwriter, something that to me is a bit lacking from some of the contemporary legends, something I take great pride in, always writing new songs and not only relying on the standards.
Why did you set out to modernize the sound of this music?
Well, despite absolutely adoring Django, I also grew up with blues, rock, jazz fusion and all the modern guitar-centered music of the 70s, 80s and 90s. I’ve always found myself trying to incorporate those influences into the style somehow, or in other words, I could never stop hearing that music as well, without totally distorting the fundamental aspects of traditional gypsy jazz.
One thing I’ve always felt a need for was having a stronger presence from the bass, hence the choice of electric, which also allows me to be a trio but perform as if we were a quartet. Tonino De Sensi can accompany as an upright bassist when needed and solo whenever needed, with far more complexity than most upright players can afford to.
So in essence, it all stemmed from the need to stay true to myself and my roots, all in respect for the common denominators of a strongly rooted style of music.
It seems impossible to be sad when listening to it. Do you agree?
Actually, I believe there are some incredibly sad and melancholic tunes within the manouche standards. I think of “Si Tu Savais,” “Claire De Lune” and “Ou est Tu Mon Amour.” I do believe they always have some pepper though, it’s never something for the faint-hearted. There’s a passion and an emphasis I rarely hear in traditional jazz.
Are lyrics more sincere in Italian, or doesn’t this matter?
The best tunes are sung in Romani, but I’ve also heard French, English and Italian. The choice of language doesn’t matter as much as the intention and skill of the music supporting it.
How did you meet the members of your ensemble?
Tommaso Papini, the rhythm player (he’s also a great lead player in his project Note Noire) has been with me from day one of this project. We met around 2011 during the very first Pennabilli Djangofest, a sort of historical gathering of players from all of Italy, all of which had more or less heard of each other through the growing internet and finally had a chance to meet. It was really a magic festival, each one of us discovering the talents of the others through mythical jam sessions that lasted until 7/8 a.m. We struck up a friendship right away.
Around the same time, we connected with a great bassist and friend from the Arezzo are, Nicola Pasquini, and also with accordionist Giacomo Tosti from Perugia. After some years we became a trio.
Nicola later adjusted to a new non-musical job so we parted ways. It was a struggle to find the right bass player and it took some time and hardship. I had known Tonino since I was a teenager as he was already very active in the Milan jazz scene so I never thought to ask him if he wanted to join. Then out of somewhat despair (we had a big tour lined up with Bimhuis Amsterdam, the Djangofollies Festival in Belgium and many more), I figured what better time to ask him.
He was excited to be part of the tour and we just meshed right away. He was thrilled to have so much freedom and to express his soloing abilities as well as his rhythmic skills.
What did you want to accomplish with this new album?
I would really like to be considered as a respectful song writer first and foremost. I also would like to dispel the unspoken concept that a gypsy jazz player cannot be a good jazz player and vice versa. There seems to a great deal of divisionism in this sense, where many jazz festivals won’t book an act because they play gypsy jazz, and the opposite happens too. In reality, it’s jazz we’re talking about. Django never set out to create a genre; in his mind, he was playing jazz.
How did it feel to release it out into the world?
It felt amazing. Especially recording at 432Hz! I think was a successful decision. Also recording live is extremely stressful but also the most rewarding. We got everything done in two days.
What is the theme of “Joie de Vivre” and how is it reflected in the different tracks?
It’s about responsibility. When a person understands that the outside world happens regardless of what we want, one understands that nobody and nothing is responsible for your happiness, except you (title of the first track, in fact). “Joie De Vivre” is a habit, it’s a constant pursuit, almost an exercise, which of course I’m still working on daily.
Which is your top favorite to perform and why?
The Bimhuis in Amsterdam. The combination of incredible technicians, the sound system, the perfectly built theater with sound as the top priority, and an audience that’s connected but also loud and electric when the situation demands. And that window backdrop of Amsterdam is just magical!
You need awesome technical ability to play well but also heart and confidence. How did you develop that?
Yes, the technical skills required in this music are very similar to the rigors of classical music. You need a consistent schedule and to just stick with it. I feel very lucky that playing many hours and sticking with a routine doesn’t feel like work to me. The biggest asset I have is I never get tired of practicing. I only stop when I absolutely have to, or when I start to get sore, but it’s also because I’m truly having fun and continuously discovering things.
I truly thank you Debbie, and all those who dedicate efforts to allow us musicians to have a voice and be known besides the music. Apart from the people who show up at our shows, you are so important to the survival of live music in general and I am truly grateful!
For more information visit www.darionapoli.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Dario Napoli.
© Debbie Burke 2020