Longevity certainly has its advantages – but for musicians seeking legendary status, an early departure often seals the deal.
Widely revered and pervasively influential, French violinist Stéphane Grappelli died some 45 years after Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, with whom he founded the epochal Quintet of the Hot Club of France in 1934. While Grappelli is hardly forgotten, his short-lived but ostentatiously talented collaborator continues to get the lion’s share of the credit for creating the Hot Club’s ebulliently swinging Gypsy jazz sound.
This weekend, Freight & Salvage presents the second Esprit de Django et Stéphane Festival, a three-day event that makes a compelling case for the Hot Club’s expansive and enduring influence, while also seeking to recalibrate the historical record to reflect Grappelli’s vast contributions.
“Grappelli is the patron saint of jazz violin,” says violinist David Balakrishnan, who performs Saturday with the latest incarnation of the jazz-infused, Grammy-winning Turtle Island Quartet. “His influence is so large it’s almost a given. I hear his sound coming from everybody, but Django did overshadow him, and I know Grappelli was upset about that. You couldn’t talk to him about it. He’d get edgy.”
Given the violin’s marginal role in jazz since the 1930s swing era, Grappelli’s innovations often resounded more deeply in bluegrass. The Freight festival opens Friday with sensational fiddler Elana James‘ Hot Club of Cowtown, a trio that explores the twangy intersection between Gypsy jazz and Western swing.
In a particularly apt booking, the Dave Grisman Sextet closes the festival Sunday. The mandolin master reintroduced Grappelli to the United States when he featured him on the soundtrack for the 1978 film “King of the Gypsies,” a relationship that led to the violinist’s touring with Grisman’s band (and the 1981 Warner Bros. album “Stéphane Grappelli/David Grisman Live”).
Anything but a musical chameleon, Grappelli brought his effortless elegance and sumptuous sound to a vast array of settings without altering his essential approach. When he died in 1997 at 89, he had recorded with greats including Duke Ellington, Gary Burton, Jean-Luc Ponty, Yo-Yo Ma, L. Subramaniam and Paul Simon.
However fraught their relationship off the bandstand, Grappelli and Reinhardt never found a more inspired collaboration. They weren’t the first great guitar/violin partnership in jazz (that was Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti), but “Django and Stéphane took it to a whole other level,” says guitarist George Cole, whose combo Eurocana, with Nashville fiddler Stephan Dudash, opens every show as the festival’s house band.
A veteran rock guitarist and teacher (who mentored Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong), Cole devoted himself to a Djangocentric approach about a decade ago, drawn to the particular sonorities created by the fiddle/guitar pairing.
“The instruments are just a match made in heaven,” he says. “The guitar is like musical pointillism, while the violin produces these gorgeous long notes. Django gets a lot of the credit as the Big Bang of the guitar, but they go together. It’s the point/counterpoint that really creates the sound.”
8 p.m. Friday-Sunday. $24.50-$39.50. Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 644-2020. www.thefreight.org.