Bob Bakert, Editor of Jazz Guitar Today: We are very proud of a very special cover story this month. We are featuring two of the world’s greatest guitarists, Bireli Lagrene and Giuseppe Continenza.
I have asked my friend and JGT contributor Charles Williams if he would take the reigns on the Bireli Lagrene and Giuseppe Continenza story/interview. Charles has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Bireli’s career and has a profound respect for Giusseppe’s accomplishments. We are grateful to Charles and of course to Bireli and Giuseppe… Enjoy!
Bireli Lagrene & Giuseppe Continenza
Introduction by Charles Williams
On Earth, there is an endless variety of life, which arranges itself by virtue of its propensity to eat or be eaten…
Lions eat wild hogs and so forth. The world of jazz is no different, and one of those lions who roams the musical landscape fearlessly is Bireli Lagrene, commanding the utmost respect from the others who share his space. No matter the context, whether it be Django Reinhardt-inspired acoustic gypsy jazz, electric straight ahead, fusion, rock, fretless electric bass a la Jaco Pastorious, or even singing Frank Sinatra inspired swing, Bireli seems to possess a unique alchemical ability: whatever goes into Bireli’s ears comes out with his own inimitable stamp on it. Marry that alchemy with his overwhelming natural ability and it is easy to see why no matter which direction or musical project attracts his interest as he scans the musical horizon, Bireli Lagrene’s contribution becomes a standard by which others measure themselves.
Born in Alsace, France, in 1966, Bireli’s musical journey started with the music of his family, the gypsy inspired jazz of Django Reinhardt. Quickly, he became recognized as a young virtuoso and unlike many players so identified at an early age who make a mark and then fade, he has simply continued to exceed expectations. Now in his early 50s, Bireli is moving ever forward with his musical travels, roaming from ensemble to ensemble, project to project, with a diverse roster of musical partners, some of which are one time collaborations, while others are ongoing.
One of these ongoing collaborations is a long-term musical conversation between two special guitarists going back nearly two decades. The year was 1998 and it was backstage at a festival when Giuseppe Continenza, the great Italian guitarist, began talking to Bireli Lagrene. There was an immediate connection and mutual recognition of common influences and ideas. Now, almost 20 years after their first tour in 2000, their conversation continues onstage as either a duo of immaculate intimacy, or a quartet with the phenomenal support of Gary Willis on bass and Michael Baker on drums.
Giuseppe’s path has been impressive to say the least. From studies in Pescara, Italy to Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles and back to Pescara where he founded his own school, the European Musician’s Institute, he has taken advantage of every opportunity along the way to study with and perform along side of the plethora of musicians he has encountered. From Vic Juris, Joe Diorio, Scott Henderson, to Howard Roberts and many more, Giuseppe has played with almost too many other musicians to name. To say he is prolific in his output of work from teaching, recording, writing, and performing is an understatement. And suffice it to say that, in a world full of virtuoso guitarists, any guitarist who can catch the ear of the Lion of the guitar, Bireli Lagrene, clearly must have something special to say.
Bireli Lagrene and Giuseppe Continenza Photo Gallery
Compliments of Andrea Feliziani
JGT: First, please tell us about your most recent projects.
Bireli Lagrene: I just recorded an album with a big band – a tribute on Jaco Pastorius and it was really fun recording it. I really love to play bass too. Next, I’m thinking about recording a new album – but I’m still thinking about it.
JGT: We have seen you over the years play many styles from swing, jazz fusion, post-bop to Django “influenced” style. Many artist seem to specialize in one style yet you have not only mastered a variety of styles, you have performed with the best of each as a peer.
Bireli: I always loved all kind of music and of course I’ve liked to play them all, I’m trying to always find new directions and new inspirations. I listened to so many musicians throughout my life – it had a huge influence on the way I play.
JGT: Can you tell us about Babik Reinhardt? Any interesting stories about his dad you would care to share?
Bireli: Babik started to play guitar very late actually around 14/15 years old; Django at first wanted him to be a pianist in order to be more different from the father and he thought he could make a better living with it. When Django died Babik was just 9 years old and he didn’t have the chance to learn from him. Be the son of a legend was not easy for him, so he decided to play and listen to different music from Django; he loved Jim Hall, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, Wes and he choose to play more modern jazz and we did many concerts together, he was a wonderful person.
JGT: When did you first fall in love with Frank Sinatra‘s music? Can you tell us what it is about his music that appeals to you so much? I know Django was a big fan, he called him a ‘total original’.
Bireli: My father has records of him and I just loved Sinatra from the first time I heard him sing! I dedicate an album to him called “ Blue Eyes” where I sing too in his style, I tried 🙂 Frank was the voice and a one of a kind singer!
JGT: We know you play the guitar, bass, and violin… Do you spend any time on the piano or any other instruments?
Bireli: Not that much with these other instruments, I like to play stringed instruments mostly. I love bass and violin.
JGT: In retrospect, what did your relationship with Jaco mean to you and how did he affect your musical outlook?
Bireli: Well, I met Jaco for the first time in New York. I was playing a concert at Fat Tuesday’s and that night after the concert I went to see Jaco at the Lone Star. That night he asked me to play a tune with him and that’s where all the things started. Some weeks later, he asked me to join him on a European tour. With me, he was always nice and kind, a true gentleman. I learned a lot from him, he was a true genius. We spend a lot of time talking and playing, he was a true inspiration for me.
JGT: Is there a musical situation you would like to explore that you haven’t?
Bireli: Well, so far I think I’m pretty happy with all the music I played. I always enjoyed and I had fun. I love all kinds of music from classical to jazz.
JGT: How much thought do you put in choosing your equipment and guitars? In the US we refer to some players as “gear heads” in that they are always tinkering with their equipment and sound… does this concern you and if so, how?
Bireli: It depends… sometimes I play a guitar and I just love it and I buy it. Sometimes companies provide guitars and if I like it, I use it. I have different set-ups depending on which kind of music I’m playing. For amps, I endorse DV Mark, an Italian company that makes wonderful amps. For guitars, I use a Yamaha Semi-Hollow, and some Yamaha electrics. I believe most of the sound comes from your end, of course, a good instrument can help. For my last CD Storyteller, I use an acoustic guitar with some effects like the Eventide H9 – making some interesting sound using delay and reverbs.
JGT: Tell us about your duo with Giuseppe… what kind of dates do you play, music selection, etc.?
Bireli: With Giuseppe, we have collaborated for 20 years now. We know each other so much and we love the same music. We can really communicate when we play together, he is a wonderful musician and I love to play with him. We toured and played concerts in clubs, theater, festivals mostly in duo and sometimes in a quartet with Gary Willis on bass and Michael Baker on drums.! We play mostly standards and we throw in many different sounds and styles, it’s very interesting and fun always.
JGT: Can you talk a little about your involvement with music academies?
Giuseppe Continenza: I’m the chair of Jazz Guitar at the Conservatory in Pescara, as well as an academy for professional guitarists for many years now. I love to teach and help musicians to develop their talents. I graduated from the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. For me, that was a wonderful experience and I had the chance to study with Joe Diorio, Scott Henderson, Ron Escheté, Howard Roberts and many others.
JGT: How did you meet Bireli and how did the duo start?
Giuseppe: We met around 1999 at a concert. We talked about music and then I sent my record to him – we decided to play some concerts together in 2000. We started as a duo but we got other musicians at times. Our duo – it’s so creative because we include many different styles of music in our concerts. It’s just magic sometimes…and we know each other so much and we feel the music flowing naturally.
JGT: How many gigs are ‘Duo’ and how many do you add other musicians?
Giuseppe: We played different gigs in Duo, we just finished a tour in Italy in August! And we have some projects in a quartet with Gary Willis on bass and Michael Baker on drums! We played many festivals, theaters and clubs. I played with so many musicians and performed at different concerts.
JGT: Finally, what are your musical goals?
Giuseppe: I love to create music live. I recorded an album tribute to Jobim with Gene Bertoncini with Dominique Di Piazza (John McLaughlin) on bass and Pietro Iodice on Drums. Next year, Biréli and I plan to record an album together. Plus, I have different projects, as well as tour by myself. This year I’ve toured Spain and Scandinavia.
JGT Contributor Charles Williams on Giuseppe Continenza…
“Suffice it to say that, in a world full of virtuoso guitarists, any guitarist who can catch the ear of the Lion of the guitar, Bireli Lagrene, clearly must have something special to say”.
JGT Thanks: Photo credit for cover shots, feature header and photos throughout the article, Paolo Iammarone. Also, thanks to Andrea Feliziani for photo slide show and select photos. Again, we are grateful to Charles Williams and of course, to Bireli and Giuseppe!