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Jazz Guitarist Lagrene Is Back to Playing the Mainstream

April 04, 1993|ZAN STEWART | Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

Guitarist Bireli Lagrene's album "Standards," just out on Blue Note Records, is a far cry from what listeners first associated with the French Gypsy jazz musician.

Introduced in 1980 as a 13-year-old prodigy, Lagrene played unamplified, steel-string guitar in the '40s swing-jazz manner of masterful Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

In the late '80s, he made a radical shift and began to play in a jazz-fusion style that occasionally reflected the influence of his favorite band at the time, Weather Report. The youngster said he had tired of that initial guitar tone that was so wedded to Reinhardt's.

"The sound was always the same, and I had been doing it since age 4, when I started playing," Lagrene said in an interview from his home in Strasbourg, France.

Now, at least for the moment, he's playing in yet another mode. Lagrene is back to the jazz and pop classics that he sometimes delivered at the beginning of his career.

But he's playing those tunes on electric guitar and sounding every bit the modern jazz guitarist in the glowing-toned, solidly swinging mold of such artists as Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall and Jimmy Raney.

Lagrene leads a trio, with drummer Joel Taylor and bassist Chris Lan Doky, from Tuesday through April 11 at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, offering such selections from "Standards" as "Donna Lee" and "Stella by Starlight."

He said it feels good to be working in this unfettered, mainstream-jazz manner once again.

"I wanted to play straight-ahead because I grew up on those tunes, and I know them well," said Lagrene, who spoke almost flawless English, with just a trace of an accent. "This is how I play when I'm sitting around improvising. It's easy, and I like to do it."

The guitarist's emotional, appealing interpretations have drawn fans everywhere. One of them is Catalina Popescu, owner of the bar and grill that bears her name.

"Bireli's wonderful," she said. "I love his style. I have talked to him, and I like the feeling he gave me, a warm feeling, and this is what he puts into his playing."

Lagrene said the making of his new album was less fraught with Angst than were such past Blue Note albums as 1988's "Foreign Affairs" and 1991's "Acoustic Moments."

This time, he was so familiar with the material that he could just relax and play, he said. "My guitar playing came out more like I play every day, or the way I play on gigs," he added. "On other albums, I was always worried about the sessions, watching everything. I was nervous, anxious."

In playing his recent repertoire of standards, Lagrene has found himself more attuned to such early idols as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. When Lagrene was a teen-ager, Coltrane shocked him: "His music is so intense that I was sometimes afraid of it. It was so powerful, I couldn't follow it."

Raney, Hall, Montgomery and Charlie Christian--"you have to go through that music," he said. "But it creates a problem in that their music is somewhat similar and, because it's jazz, you end up playing some of the same notes, the same phrases that other guitarists have played before."

To get beyond this, Lagrene composes originals, which, he said, "make me play differently."

Despite Lagrene's mainstream-minded current tour, jazz rock remains a style that he loves. He played in Japan last fall with drummer Lenny White and former Weather Report bassist Victor Bailey; tunes with a rock rhythmic feeling were part of the program.

The guitarist talked about why he likes this more contemporary format: "Jazz rock allows you to play really strong, to play outside the style I might usually play. I also like the variety of sounds and effects that you can get with different guitars and with synthesizers."

Lagrene first began to shift his aesthetic interest toward rock-influenced jazz in 1980, when he heard Weather Report, the now-defunct group that was led jointly by keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

"I got so excited," he recalled. "The band blew my mind. Though I had never heard music like that, it fit with me; it sounded so natural. I wanted to play it. It was like a hidden part of myself, a part I didn't know, that came out."

In 1985, Lagrene had the opportunity to play with the late electric bassist Jaco Pastorius, who achieved acclaim during his tenure with Weather Report from 1976 to 1980.

"I was in New York, playing at Fat Tuesday's, and I remember wanting to finish up early so I could go hear Jaco at the Lone Star," Lagrene said. "We met, and he told me he had seen my name in the newspaper, and then he asked me to come up and play a tune. I can't remember what we played. I can only remember that the owner was mad because he wanted to close," the guitarist said with a laugh.

Six weeks later, Lagrene was in heaven: He and Pastorius had set up a tour of Europe. And though Pastorius was notorious for his often violent outbursts--he died in 1987 as a result of injuries received in a brawl at a nightclub in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.--Lagrene said the bassist treated him like a gentleman. "He was great, thoughtful. I never had a problem," Lagrene said.

After the "Standards" tour, he isn't sure what musical direction he'll take, he said. "I like everything from hard rock to classical. I'm only 26. If I want to do something different, there's a chance for me."

Bireli Lagrene plays Tuesday through April 11, 9 and 11 p.m., at Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. $12 to $15 cover, two-drink minimum. Information: (213) 466-2210.

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