Happy Birthday Django Reinhardt

Hello from Taipei, Taiwan! Today is Django Reinhardt’s 106th birthday! I was hoping to have the time to transcribe a lot of Django solos this week, but unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Nonetheless, I managed to wake up earlier today to transcribe one of my favorite Django solos from his rome sessions in 1949. The song is “It’s Only A Paper Moon” (you can download the transcription at the bottom of this post).

Django Reinhardt. The man to whom I owe my entire career (OK, my family too). Truly one of the rare geniuses of 20th century. He called himself a jazz musician, but I think he was selling himself short (and he wasn’t exactly Mr. Humble); while he mainly used jazz to express himself musically, he was far more than just a jazz musician. He was simply unique. We have to keep in mind that he was the very first known guitar player to improvise highly intricate and virtuosic solos for jazz guitar. Some people may want to argue with this statement, but I stand by it. While he easily absorbed all the music that came his way, he also forged his own improvisational voice right from the very beginning. A voice that was certainly heavily influenced by the jazz music of the time, but also by far more; he was a huge fan of classical music and he was one of the first to incorporate heavy elements into his improvisational vocabulary.

His sound is unparalleled. At that time, no guitarist took advantage of the instrument the way he did: the wide range of dynamics, the big band style chords, the attack, the vibrato, the bends, the harmonics, and all the other ornaments. He did it all; he was not only a master improviser, but a technical innovator as well.

His timing was flawless; the incredible control he had over the time is just mind boggling. A complete genius of music, and all this, he developed on his own I really try not to be a fan-boy of anyone, and I try to be objective in my analyses, so I really mean it when I say that Django deserves all these accolades and then some.

To celebrate the master’s birthday, I’d like to talk about this solo that I transcribed.

“It’s Only A Paper Moon” has a bit of a rhythm changes feel to it, without actually being one. I’ve always found songs like this to be difficult to improvise over as it’s somewhere between a modal and tonal song. Tonal because the progressions follow traditional functional harmony rules, and one could certainly play the changes to the song, but due to the fast harmonic rhythm, doing so might sound too much like an etude. Instead, most improvisers don’t necessarily always outright outline the changes, but play over the general key. Songs like this are a true test of one’s comprehension of improvisation. It tests one’s knowledge of harmony, voice leading, timing and phrasing (groove).

A perfect solo to showcase Django’s mastery of all these elements. In this solo, there is a perfect balance of playing the changes, and playing in the general key. Furthermore, he shows that he understands the nature of the song, but I playing variations of the theme at times. The phrasing is also something to look out for. There’s a lot of motivic development going on. Also, notice the durations of the phrases. Notice when he starts and ends his phrases. There’s a lot of anticipation, or starting a phrase after the harmonic beat (the very first phrase for instance). The phrasing crosses over the barlines seamlessly, and the voice leading is perfect.

From a technical point of view, the solo isn’t too challenging, but there are a few elements that most people might overlook with regards to the ornaments. When people come to me wanting to know more about Django Reinhardt’s technique, ornaments are some of the first things that I like to show them. This solo is a perfect of the often overlooked ornaments that I’m talking about. It happens right away on the first phrase. Notice the way I notated the first three trills. The first one starts with a downstroke, followed by an upstroke, and then a pull-off. The second starts with a dowstroke, then a hammer-on, and then an upstroke. The second one is a full on hammer-on/pull-off trill. These are the kind of ornaments that very typical in Django’s playing. It may seem like a small detail, but I feel that these 3 variations add different colours to the music.

Last but not least, I feel that I should talk a little bit about the melodic content. Like I said, I try to be objective in my analyses, so I won’t shy away from saying that Django sometimes made mistakes. To over-glorify him would be an insult to truthful research. There is some questionable note choices at the end of the B section over the A7 and D7 chords. I’m talking about the intervallic lines. These are typical phrases that Django played during that period. However, I noticed that the note choices were a little bit out of place. On the A7 chord, he plays a D natural, and over the D7, he plays a C#. I think he meant to play C# and C, respectively. Like I said, this is a typical Django phrase. In other instances when he played variations of this line, he didn’t make a mistake. Nonetheless, it still works in the solo and doesn’t sound out of place. The reason for this is because the notes go by fairly quickly, and also because the line itself is very intervallic; it creates an “outside” sound without actually being too out. Of course, one could come up with a somewhat intricate theoretical answer to justify the “wrong” notes, but that’s way beyond the scope of this article.

Anyway, enjoy the solo! Click here to download the transcription.