Almost 50 years after his death, jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt still casts a long shadow. It’s significant that his once explosively innovative style has now become so thoroughly naturalized in jazz tradition; the current resurgence in Django’s popularity and an encyclopedic CD re-release or two should restore more of the credit due this pioneer and showcase his contributions to jazz for a fourth generation of fans.
I’m still waiting for one song in particular: a track on an LP that passed in and out of my hands before I had a chance to make a copy of it. One jazz duo in town plays a tasteful dinner version of it, but lately I’ve been looking to Celestial Buckshot to really do it justice, to replicate the raucous tangle of opening chords, the whistling melody and sparrow-light runs of the original. So far, no luck. Not like I’ve asked or anything; I’d be way too embarrassed.
For fans of the rambling, shambling Django sound, Celestial Buckshot is really the only game in town. The four of them—guitarist Barrett Meigs, violinist Catlin Hill, drummer Greg Martin and bassist Joel Schnackel—come as close as you’ll find in Missoula to pre-war swing jazz of the kind originally exported from America, perfected in Europe, and practically personified by the Gypsy with the two smaller fingers of his left hand permanently crooked at the second knuckle.
“The first time I heard this kind of music, I just loved it,” says Meigs, “It turned my crank. I wanted to duplicate it as best I could with the limited knowledge I had.”
That approach, too, is faithful to the original material; the unschooled Reinhardt first turned to guitar after a 1928 caravan fire that almost cost him his leg (also, hence the famously bent fingers). A doctor recommended the instrument as therapy. Two years later, Reinhardt heard his first recordings of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and it was all over, so to speak.
In the part of Reinhardt, Meigs is a skilled but cautious improvisor, dropping notes slightly ahead of and behind the beat and subtly rewiring single notes of the melodies as he goes. It seems like the weight of tradition would press on him the hardest, but there’s another equally famous personality for Hill to contend with: Reinhardt’s friend and longtime collaborator, violinist Stephane Grappelli. Like Meigs, Hill acquits herself nearly perfectly in Grappelli’s figurative shoes.
The real showman in Celestial Buckshot, though, is clearly bassist Schnackel. Certain of the songs in CB’s Django-heavy repertoire, like “Swing de Paris,” require rapid switches from plucked bass to a bow tilted for maximum raspiness, and when Schnackel really gets into it way up on the bridge, he leans into the instrument and kneads the high notes out mere inches from his face. As with Meigs’s sparkling runs and liquid glisses, you can practically see the sparks flying.
Interestingly, CB members don’t have many exciting opinions about their music. They let the songs speak for themselves. And, more than most, they do.
Celestial Buckshot plays every Sunday night at Charlie B’s at 9 p.m., and this Wednesday, Nov. 29 at the Old Post at 10 p.m. Admission is FREE.