It's not unusual for teen-agers to have identity problems. But consider the case of Bireli Lagrene, a French guitarist who, while in his early teens, startled the jazz world with his uncanny re-creations of the music of Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, who died in 1953.
Before he was 16, Lagrene--who will play acoustic sets alone and together with Al Di Meola and Larry Coryell tonight at the Coach House--was in danger of being permanently cast as a Django imitator.
"I had a hard time making my own personality," Lagrene, now 22, said in a recent phone conversation during his current tour. "When I was a kid, I played what I liked, and I liked Django. I learned all of his songs and all of his solos. But when I was around 15 or 16, I thought, well, I have to do something else. People came to my shows not to see me but to see a person represent Django's music. I didn't feel very comfortable with it."
Lagrene (a full-blood Gypsy himself) began to look for his own directions. "I started composing more, and I discovered the big world of electronics." He took a big step toward becoming his own man in 1987 with the release of "Inferno" (Blue Note), a rocking collection of electric numbers with titles like "Action" and "Hips." One Lagrene original from the album, "Rock It," with its solid back-beat and screaming guitar lines, seemed like a declaration of independence for the youthful star, almost an overstatement of his new direction.
"I had been playing this soft, cool music, very jazzy, and I told myself that I wanted to do a tune that really rocks out," he said. The critics, used to his flowing acoustic treatment of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and others from the Reinhardt bag, condemned the new direction.
But Lagrene hadn't broken entirely away from his early idol. Also on the album, he played an electric version of "Incertitude" by Babik Reinhardt, Django's son, with all the rolling agility and Gypsy inflection that gained him prominence.
Does he still play Reinhardt's numbers today? "Almost none," he said. "I'm still listening to him, though. My point in listening to other musicians is to see what's happening. I don't really have a big influence at this time. I listen to all those guys, (John) Scofield, (Mike) Stern, and know them personally. But I would never keep my own style if I listened to too many guitarists. I'd pick up too much of their style and would start to sound like Stern and those guys."
Lagrene's latest album, "Foreign Affairs" (also on Blue Note), makes a break with the past, but not quite as self-consciously. From the cool musings of "Timothee," a tune named for Lagrene's 18-month-old son on which he plays electric bass, to Herbie Hancock's "Jack Rabbit," the album displays a variety of contexts and tempos. The most apparent is that of Joe Zawinul and Weather Report, whose sound is faithfully vamped on a Lagrene original called "Josef."
One thread that connects both albums to Lagrene's earlier days is his "Rue de Pierre," versions of which appear on both albums (the song is named after the street he was born on; Pierre is also the name he was given at birth). The unaccompanied acoustic renditions, though little resembling each other, demonstrate the young guitarist's agility and wit and are a good indication of what fans will hear tonight.
Lagrene, who lives outside Strasbourg, France, is anxious to return to this country with his current band; keyboardist Koono (who Lagrene says is part Gypsy), bassist Jurgen Attig and drummer Allen Nau. All but Nau play on "Foreign Affairs."
"I want to concentrate on this band," Lagrene said, "and not switch musicians. I want people to recognize my music and my musicians, now that I've got great personalities in the band."
Has he finally shaken the perception that he's a Django clone? "Those last two records really helped. In Europe, people already know I play my own music. In America, they've been slow to find out. That's why I want to come back with my band."
Bireli Lagrene, Al Di Meola and Larry Coryell play tonight at 8 and 10:30 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $17.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.