A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Think of Django Reinhardt, and it’s impossible not to think of Stéphane Grappelli. They seem forever inseparable, musically telepathic, mutually defining – a perfect, legendary pairing like Laurel and Hardy, Holmes and Watson, Ben and Jerry. And yet, because of the brilliance of their collaboration, we sometimes forget they had compellingly vital careers apart from one another – Grappelli most significantly in the 44 years following Django’s death in 1953, and Reinhardt during World War II, when Grappelli relocated to England, and his remaining eight years thereafter – a few notable reunions notwithstanding. It appears the guitarist felt that his partner’s violin was irreplaceable; in need of a potentially permanent substitute in the summer of 1940, Reinhardt eschewed other available fiddlers like Michel Warlop (a well-known bandleader in his own right), Sylvio Schmidt, or Léon Ferreri (both of whom Django had played with in the early 1930s), and looked instead for a reedman to balance the front line of the Quintette du Hot Club de France. His first choice was Alix Combelle, the most successful jazz saxophonist in France at this time, but Combelle, though happy to record with him on occasion under his leadership, had other plans. He recommended a young tenor saxophonist (he also picked up the clarinet once in a while) who, though born in Lyon, France, had gone to Algiers to kick-start his career, but now was trying to fit into the wildly active Parisian jazz scene – Hubert Rostaing. Between 1940 and 1948, Rostaing recorded 114 studio or live performances – give or take a few alternate takes – with Reinhardt. And that is where this story really begins.

According to Charles Delaunay in his 1954 book on Reinhardt, once Django heard Rostaing play clarinet, he convinced him that he should leave the tenor at home. Rostaing admitted that at this point in time improvisation was new to him, and he didn’t even know how to play the blues, but his first recordings with Reinhardt show he was a quick study. Rostaing’s debut as a member of the Hot Club Quintet, October 1940, proved he had the technique to keep pace with Django’s ferocious tempo on “Rythme Futur,” although he wasn’t required to solo. On the gypsy-tinged “Blues” he does solo with all the right intentions but the feeling isn’t quite convincing, and “Undecided” confirms that Django was right about his tenor saxophone. But just two months later, Rostaing’s tangy clarinet sails spiritedly through “Vendredi 13,” a minor key line reminiscent of “Topsy” that is a small gem of proportion, mood, and swing. From this point on, Rostaing’s role in the ensemble has been effectively established; it goes without saying that Reinhardt’s playing throughout all of these recordings is sui generis, but the dizzying circuity and dazzling speed of his lines is stabilized by Rostaing’s fluid, dependably lyrical (albeit sometimes biting) clarinet. Another minor key masterpiece of this period, recorded that same month by Reinhardt and the Hot Club’s rhythm section in support of a trio of reeds – Rostaing’s sassy clarinet, Christian Wagner’s insouciant alto sax, and Combelle’s mellow-with-an-edge tenor – is “Pour Commencer,” which builds with a tenacious inevitability worthy of a Count Basie small group classic.

During the war years, Reinhardt was the biggest jazz star in occupied Paris – the degree of his fame demonstrated by the fact that despite the Nazi’s ruthless treatment of gypsies throughout Europe, he was tolerated for his ability to entertain audiences of all nationalities; he wasn’t even punished for the several times he tried unsuccessfully to escape France. So jobs were frequent, though recording opportunities decreased. From 1941 to ’45, the Hot Club Quintet per se had just three studio sessions, for a total of 11 sides – the last six from a February 1943 date with tandem clarinetists André Lluis and Gérard Leveque replacing Rostaing. Reinhardt was able to supplement these with solo and relatively commercial “orchestral” recordings; the pastorale “Nymphéas,” from March 1942 with a 14-piece band named Django’s Music (and Rostaing as clarinet soloist), shows as an arranger he knew his Ravel. (Ironically, on the same day he also took a solo, not on guitar but bowed acoustic bass a la Slam Stewart, on “Première Idée D’Eddie,” with an octet under Rostaing’s leadership! Rostaing himself offered a confident, pungent clarinet solo.) The guitarist’s playing on these varied recordings frequently reflects more of, say, Monet’s impressionism than Braque’s cubism, and even into 1947 he was recording more sentimental ballads than le jazz hot, as if he’d lost a spark that ultimately only an encounter with bebop would re-ignite. As for Rostaing, his growing acceptance on the scene led to more exposure – most notably, four decisively swinging sides with his own quintet (no Django) in 1943 (collected on the CD Jazz Sous L’occupation, Gitanes), and a 1944 session for Eddie Barclay’s Orchestra (also heard on Jazz Sous L’occupation) on which, prophetically, he composed and arranged all four pieces.

After the war Reinhardt was reunited, sporadically, with Grappelli, and he visited the U.S. where bebop and electric guitars were becoming the newest trends. He brought an interest in both back with him, as his 1947 and ’48 recordings with a reconstructed Hot Club Quintet, including Rostaing, reveal. “Babik (Bi-Bop),” named for his son and his new musical curiosity, has a speedy line akin to the kind Benny Goodman had been recording with Charlie Christian five or more years previously, but the “Salt Peanuts” lick here is unmistakable, as is the manner in which the electric guitar revitalized Django’s playing. Purists may have lamented (and probably still do) the rough, aggressively amplified tone and the loss of acoustic guitar nuances, but the enhanced sound projection energized his phrasing with sharper attacks, sustained notes that sliced through the ensemble, and ringing power chords. Rostaing’s role, meanwhile, was once again to play the voice of reason in contrast to Reinhardt’s ever-more-extreme tonal flamboyance. From May to December 1947, they recorded 46 studio tracks for Decca, Blue Star, and Vogue, including two with a combo that featured Rex Stewart as guest cornetist and Rostaing on Benny Carterish alto saxophone. Now, however, his clarinet had an even greater presence – more color, more security, more varied phrasing with added filigree and quirky asides – exhibiting an unruffled, comfortable demeanor on “Swingtime in the Springtime,” full control over his instrument’s complete register including chromatic insinuations on “Stockholm,” and deft footing even when confronted with Django’s near-violent escapades on “Swing Dynamique,” all from September 1947. Yet they weren’t in the studio together at all during 1948, and after a December concert, captured on Django’s new portable tape recorder, that revisited several earlier successes, they never recorded together again. In the last five years of his life, Reinhardt filled in with reliable old cohort André Ekyan or newcomer Hubert Fol; interestingly, both concentrated on alto saxophone, not clarinet. There were no reed players at all on his final two sessions, in March and April 1953.

Critics, when they’ve mentioned Rostaing’s work with Reinhardt at all, have typically offered an oversimplified comparison with Benny Goodman, as if swing clarinet phrasing was one-dimensional and easy to mimic. But just as there were stylistic differences between the playing of Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman, for example, so Rostaing developed his own point of view. He never reached the heights of which Goodman was capable, because Goodman was a looser, freer improviser who took more risks. Rostaing was more detail-oriented; with Reinhardt, he played a role which required flexibility, poise, facility, and flair – and played it with keen sensitivity. No doubt, it was these specific characteristics, and his familiarity with a range of jazz styles, that allowed him to shift so effortlessly from Django’s spontaneous, edgy, propulsive swing to the refined, chamber music consistency and meticulousness of André Hodeir’s music. Hodeir, who began his musical career under the name Claude Laurence, playing swing violin in the ‘40s with, among others, Django’s brother, guitarist Joseph Reinhardt, studied with Olivier Messiaen, was a particularly opinionated critic of jazz and contemporary classical music (his books include Toward Jazz and Since Debussy), and founded the Jazz Groupe de Paris to perform his own compositions, which combined aspects of the modern jazz harmonic language of George Russell, Gil Evans, and Thelonious Monk, with an awareness of classical design and proportion. To this end, rather than allow his musicians to improvise in their own voices, he often composed the solos in his pieces to maintain the feeling of conceptual unity. Rostaing first worked with Hodeir in 1949 on his soundtrack to the film Autour d’un Récif (Around a Reef) – an undersea film by the yet-to-be-famous Jacques Costeau. The imagery was described by its director as a “ballet of fish,” to which Hodeir devised episodes of noirish jazz and parodies of earlier styles that changed tempo, texture, instrumental color, and mood. In 1953 Rostaing participated on another Hodeir film score, this one for the documentary Saint-Tropez, with music influenced by The Birth of the Cool, requiring him, chameleon-like, to inhabit alto saxophone styles ranging from Johnny Hodges to Lee Konitz, and add some of Tony Scott’s panache to his clarinet repertoire. In ’59 he joined a Kenny Clarke-fronted sextet to record several of Hodeir’s reflections on jazz classics like Gerry Mulligan’s “Jeru” and Monk’s “Eronel,” and in 1966 played a featured role in the ensemble that recorded Hodeir’s densely episodic, multi-stylistic “jazz cantata” on words by James Joyce, Anna Livia Plurabelle. Hodeir’s music took full advantage of Rostaing’s versatility.

While he was involved in these occasional, diverse, esoteric projects of Hodeir’s, Rostaing was concerned with making a living through more commercial means. Throughout the 1950s, he was responsible for a number of albums of popular music – dance music for living room fox-trotters and instrumental rock’n’roll for teen sock-hops – under such pseudonyms as Earl Cadillac, Dick Rasurell, and Joe Kalamazoo. Honing his arranging skills on even such lightweight material as this ultimately led to his primary post-jazz career, as composer and arranger for films and television. From 1956 until his death in 1990, Rostaing served as composer, orchestrator, conductor, or music director on 53 films or television series, beginning, enticingly enough, with Naughty Girl, starring Brigitte Bardot, and including the legendary 1983 “lost” film Where is Parsifal?, with Tony Curtis, Erik Estrada, Peter Lawford, Ron Moody, Donald Pleasance, and Orson Welles, nonetheless considered to be so dreadful that it was only released officially in France and almost immediately withdrawn from circulation.

And yet, even with such an impressive résumé, it could be argued that Hubert Rostaing’s greatest post-Django achievement was to inspire the composition of Jean Barraqué’s Concerto, and to perform as clarinet soloist, with the BBC Symphony, at its 1968 world premiere. In my humble opinion, Concerto is one of the most fascinating, distinctive, and shamefully neglected works of the second half of the 20th century. Neglected, I suppose, because its composer was an insulated, idiosyncratic, quixotic, neurotic individual who so strongly identified with a larger-than-life figure of Beethoven that, in the words of critic Paul Griffiths, “the musical work had to be a Promethean act of creation from out of the void,” and whose complexity of method, enormity of vision, and depth of despair was such that he completed and acknowledged only seven works in a 25-year career. Barraqué met Rostaing through André Hodeir, who was a fellow student of Olivier Messiaen’s and one of Barraqué’s earliest supporters. After hearing Rostaing perform Hodeir’s jazz scores and the demanding clarinet part in his own …au delà du hasard he was so taken by “the playing, the timbre, the sensitivity, and the interpretation,” he resolved to compose a work which would feature clarinet and vibraphone in extensive solo roles. It took six years of painstaking effort, but on completing the work he dedicated it to Rostaing. Though he was to live another five years, it was the last work he would compose.

Barraqué’s Concerto is music of continually transformed colors and shapes, as the ensemble divides and realigns itself into various small combinations, playing with the contradictions of simultaneous continuity and discontinuity, design and spontaneity, unpredictability and comprehension. The clarinet swoops and soars, growls and croons intricate melodic responses to the stimulus of its bewildering, elaborate, Alice in Wonderland environment. There have been two studio recordings of the work, the first by clarinetist Rémi Lerner (Harmonia Mundi, 1987), the second by Ernesto Molinari (cpo, 1998). I prefer the former, whose quick tempi and pointed attacks maintain momentum and a high level of intensity. But both pale in comparison to an unreleased 1970s live performance by Rostaing and Ensemble 2e2m, which is mesmerizing, amazingly focused and spiked with what the composer imagined as “jazz sonorities” (that is, the expressive vagaries of tone and pitch) and “free associations” of instruments corresponding to his personal adaptation of serial procedures. It offers an ensemble of exquisite transparency, languorously agitating (a phrase borrowed from poet Frank O’Hara). And Rostaing’s ability to negotiate such a treacherous course with poise and aplomb is remarkable.  

Although the conceptual distance from Django’s jazz to the Barraqué Concerto would seem to be enormous, they are each, in their own fashion, among the marvels of modern music. And Hubert Rostaing’s skill and imagination played a crucial role in their creation. It’s time we gave credit where credit’s due.

Art Lange©2013

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