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Samarabalouf's Gypsy sounds don't linger

March 22, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

SAMARABALOUF is not a name that trips fleetingly off the tongue. But there it was Tuesday night at the Theatre Raymond Kabbaz -- an oddly labeled trio of French musicians dedicated to the contemporary exploration of jazz manouche.

"Samarabalouf" is a combination of "Samara," an ancient name for the river Somme, which runs through the group's hometown of Amiens; bal, the French word for "dancing," and ouf, French slang for "crazy." Manouche is used in France to describe Roma Gypsies.

The group's music has been described as something akin to "punk Gypsy." But mosh pits were the last thing that came to mind in a performance that owed a lot more to guitarist Django Reinhardt's explorations in the '30s of Gypsy rhythms and jazz swing.

Francois Petit, the trio's music director, principal soloist and all-around spark plug, displayed a warm familiarity with many of Reinhardt's favorite riffs. Jauntily working his way through tunes bearing such intriguing titles as "La Valche Folle," "Guitare Boogie Boolga" and "La Rumba de L'Amour," he added a colorful vocabulary of percussive wood slaps, string slides and high harmonics.

Rhythm guitarist Pierre Margerin and bassist Luc Ambry played supportive roles, for the most part, driving the music forward, occasionally interacting directly with Petit to build dramatic, percussive climaxes.

They did all this in an atmosphere combining brisk musical intensity, articulate playing and an infectious enthusiasm. Petit's between-songs commentary, in French and English, engaged directly with a largely bilingual audience. (The theater is on the campus of the Lycee Francais de Los Angeles.)

Entertaining as they were, however, Samarabalouf rarely pushed beyond the superficial aspects of jazz manouche. Most tunes were brief and to the point, allowing no room for more expansive musical development. And one was left with little more than the fast-fading taste of an intriguingly named but imaginatively limited musical appetizer.

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