Despite the fact that his career peaked more than fifty years ago, Django Reinhardt is still the barometer by which all Gypsy jazz guitarists are measured. In the 1999 Woody Allen film Sweet and Lowdown, Sean Penn plays a Gypsy guitarist tormented by living in the shadow of the legendary Django. In the film, the tragically comic, talented, yet troubled Emmet Ray is obsessed with the notion that he is the “second best” Gypsy guitarist alive.
In 2005, with the major labels predictably focusing their efforts on the musical flavor of the week, it is easy to lose sight of the still-flourishing Gypsy jazz/swing community, which flies far beneath the mainstream radar, and in which Django’s spirit shines as brightly as ever. Strangely enough, most Americans familiar with the genre seem to have learned about it through Woody Allen’s film. Elsewhere in the world, however, bolstered by Django festivals, these musicians play to full houses of avid supporters who can’t get enough of this heavily improvisational music. Make no mistake about it, the genre is very much alive, well, and swinging on stages internationally.
Among the contemporaries dedicated to this sound is Robin Nolan. Born in Vietnam in 1968 to musician parents, he learned to play guitar at the age of six, following the family’s move to Hong Kong. Having worked through several genres, including rock, jazz, and blues, Nolan eventually caught the fever of Gypsy jazz and ended up settling in Amsterdam, sharpening his chops while busking on the Leidseplein. Working to keep the crowds’ interest (and gratuities) despite the many distractions of those notorious streets, Nolan learned to pepper his sound with hooks and lilting harmonics in spades. His talents didn’t remain a street-corner secret for long.
He gradually began booking shows in proper venues and in time began touring the world, eventually becoming a leading figure on the circuit. He was given the high honor of opening the fiftieth Django Reinhardt Festival in Samois sur Seine, France, which is the final resting place of Reinhardt himself. This was considered a major achievement for a non-Gypsy, and it elevated Nolan’s reputation in that very specific world. He has since displayed his talent on stages worldwide, including New York’s Lincoln Center and the Montreal Jazz Festival. Over time he has received endorsements from such musical icons as Willie Nelson, Bill Wyman, and the late George Harrison (who invited him to play events at his estate on numerous occasions). Wyman was quoted as saying that if he ever recorded a record that called for a Gypsy jazz/swing guitarist, he’d get Robin Nolan on the next plane.
One of Nolan’s recent North American gigs was captured on film and released as an “authorized bootleg” on DVD. Live at Langley, shot, directed, and edited by New Yorker Henri Falconi, is a film that treats its viewers to an intimate look at this dynamic musician (and his top-flight band: John Friedrichs on rhythm guitar and Ari Munkros on upright bass) as they light up the stage at the Django Fest Northwest on Whidbey Island, a ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle. The accumulated footage has a raw yet composed, bootleg-ish style that captures the spirit of this show quite impressively. Falconi wastes little energy on frivolous visual tricks, wisely focusing on the players themselves and Nolan’s incredible fretwork in particular. As a director, he allows the performance to do the talking and doesn’t bombard the viewer with excessively clever editing or superfluous shots of the audience. His focus is where it ought to be—on the superbly skilled hands of Robin Nolan and his band.
Nolan’s relentless picking, strumming, and improvisational riffing throughout the performance is brilliant, and the energy it creates is not lost on the enthusiastic crowd of Gypsy-jazz purists. Anticipating his next acrobatic twist or off-the-cuff hook (at one point a song veers off for a minute into “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and back again) is exhilarating. His swing version of “Summertime” is a radical reinterpretation that is absolutely mesmerizing. His sound is a cocktail of European Gypsy music and American jazz that pops and flows with abandon, with an inventiveness that is truly unique to this player.
While the performance itself is engaging enough on its own, the DVD features unique extras that a fan of the craft of guitar playing will find engaging. They include footage of a guitar workshop that Nolan conducted during the week of the Django Fest that shows the residents of Whidbey Island, gathered in a room, struggling to solve the method to Nolan’s magic. From the spellbound look in their eyes, the viewer can see it’s a heady goal indeed.
The Robin Nolan Trio will embark on a U.S. tour this summer. Recording and tour information is available at:
Todd Simmons is an actor/writer/improviser. He lives in the East Village.
Todd Simmons is a writer/actor/improviser. He lives in the East Village.