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Why isn't Bireli famous in the US?

MichaelHorowitzMichaelHorowitz SeattleAdministrator
edited December 2005 in Welcome Posts: 5,773
After watching the Super Guitar Trio DVD, I couldn't help come back to a thought I've had many times over the years:

Why isn't Bireli famous in the US?

Ok, he isn't exactly obscure in the guitar world. However, throughout my high school years, and my college years at Berklee, I don't ever remember hearing much about him. The guys that got all the attention where Pat Metheny, John Scofield, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryelle, Al Di Meola, etc. But when I listen to recordings of Bireli from the 80s, and 90s, he was clearly playing at, or above those guys. But he never seemed to get much respect for it. It's only now that he's older AND gone back to Gypsy jazz that he seems to be getting more recognition.

So here are a few of my theories. I'd like to know what people think:

1) Bireli is a victim of Gypsy musical stereotyping: I know that almost every Gypsy (including Django) that has tried to play something beyond the pre-war django style has faced heavy criticism. The public wants Gypsies to play like Django...and that's it. I know that this was an issue for Fapy. He gets pegged as being very traditional...but he actually played straight ahead electric stuff for years. But he was forced to go back to playing Django...he just couldn't get enough work doing anything else.

2) Although a technical genius, Bireli lacks a unique musical direction. It seems that Bireli likes to "conquer" musical genres one after another. Django, then Bop, then Fusion, etc. He seems to immerse himself in a style , learn all the vocabulary, and then outplay the best guys. But maybe he's missed something a long the way. Bireli definitely has an identifiable sound...he has a lot of humor in his playing which is so lacking in most players. But he hasn't really created a whole new genre...he's just really freaking good at the genres that are all ready around. So the fame of Pat Metheney is probably more about being one of pioneers of fusion then it is about being monster player (which he also is). I suppose you could say the same about Al Di Meola too.

3) Maybe Bireli just doesn't care: This is probably the main reason...he's a Gypsy so playing guitar is a lifestyle. He simply doesn't have the same career motivations that the Gadjos have. On a certain level, he's probably just happy to play, whether it's at the camp or at Carnegie hall. He's pulled a no show at more concerts then I can count. Behavior like that says it all...

I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts...

'm
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Comments

  • WowBobWowWowBobWow Another Time & SpaceNew
    Posts: 221
    Hmmmm, I`d have to agree with you on the fact that nobody knows who lagrene is. During my jazz studies at SFSU and SBCC zero people know who lagrene is (most people knew heard of django!). It`s all about sounding like charlie parker or one of the guys you mentioned and mimicing them.

    I am not sure if lagrene`s popularity is due to his management and exposure as much as it is that people`s ears are stretched to appreciate him (the common masses of folk who listen to pop and yanni, even jazz folks have no albums of`guitar led jazz` and probably couldn`t handle lagrene`s stuff).

    I can remember listening to the best of QHCF compilation `Parisian Swing` all the time and I never heard of lagrene or the other live gypsy greats--Fapy, Tchavolo, Stochelo, etc. So when I heard lagrene`s Gypsy Project my ears couldn`t accept it until about 3 years ago--then it was like---holy sh*t!! This is insane!!! Nevertheless it took time for even my ears --a newborn djangogeek-- to come to terms with lagrene`s mastery of technique and phrasing.

    Hopefully now that his younger albums have been released Lagrene will get more exposure and credit due (I recently bought the `Swing 81` and `routes to django` albums which are amazing to say the least). I teach guitar at a local music studio and I swear---there is no kid who is 13 who isn`t obsessed with green day and other pop shitte and it is a shame to imagine how if they were exposed to more cultural music like Lagrene or other intelligient music then their drive to excel in their musicianship would be stronger.

    But hey, parker, bach, django, beethoven, and countless other music giants died poor and out of the spotlight, nevertheless in due time their shadows cast great sources of inspiration to a lot of people beyond their lifespan--perhaps Lagrene`s tale will follow their path, too.
  • WowBobWowWowBobWow Another Time & SpaceNew
    Posts: 221
  • trumbologytrumbology San FranciscoNew
    edited December 2005 Posts: 124
    Interesting discussion question, Michael. I hope, in my replies below, I don't come accross as knowing the exact reasons why Birelli isn't widely known. Just my two cents:

    The guys that got all the attention where Pat Metheny, John Scofield, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryelle, Al Di Meola, etc.

    Is the context of fame here mostly with respect to jazz guitar fans?

    Scofield, Frisell, and Metheny seem to have the broadest appeal to non-musicians. They are almost in another class compared to McLaughlin, Larry Coryelle, Al Di Meola, who have somewhat less appeal to non-musicians, and Holdsworth, Bill Connors, Frank Gimbale, and Kazumi Watanabe, I would say have very little appeal to those who weren't practicing jazz guitarists or otherwise intense fusion heads.

    I know I'm blurring some timeframes here, as Coryell's biggest successes came before anyone really knew who Frisell was.

    But when I listen to recordings of Bireli from the 80s, and 90s, he was clearly playing at, or above those guys. But he never seemed to get much respect for it.

    Well, he did make a kind of big splash as a child prodigy, and sometimes people lose interest in prodigies or guys like Stanley Jordan or Michael Hedges who do something very different.
    1) Bireli is a victim of Gypsy musical stereotyping: I know that almost every Gypsy (including Django) that has tried to play something beyond the pre-war django style has faced heavy criticism. The public wants Gypsies to play like Django...and that's it. I know that this was an issue for Fapy. He gets pegged as being very traditional...but he actually played straight ahead electric stuff for years. But he was forced to go back to playing Django...he just couldn't get enough work doing anything else.

    Probably true. In any field, the larger public mind (and it's wallet) just has room for three to six people at the top. I think the audiences and consumers of Gypsy Jazz, and those consumers of post-bop and fusion (you didn't really mention mainstream players like Jack Wilkins and Bruce Forman, so I won't try to throw them into the mix either) -- two different audiences, generally speaking. The fusion / post-bop fans have their heroes, and Birelli doesn't get much of a pass due to his fame in the string swing world. He's got lots of competition, and music obviously isn't always a meritocracy.
    2) Although a technical genius, Bireli lacks a unique musical direction. But maybe he's missed something a long the way. [snip] Bireli definitely has an identifiable sound...he has a lot of humor in his playing which is so lacking in most players. But he hasn't really created a whole new genre...[snip]So the fame of Pat Metheney is probably more about being one of pioneers of fusion then it is about being monster player (which he also is). I suppose you could say the same about Al Di Meola too.

    There's the sound of the player (both the amp and guitar tones, as well as the phrasing and personality), and then there's the sound of the total package (how strong is the composition and arrangement? How good is the mixing and mic'ing? How good are the accompanying personnel?) Music is a collective art, most of the time.

    I think Metheney sells a lot of records to people who never listen closely to his note choices as he solos. His band is his sound, for the most part.

    Scofield, in his recent funk work, also is selling a band and a groove, though his tart guitar lines are often very catchy and impossible to ignore.

    Sco genre hops, as Birelli does, so I don't know if that's Birelli's biggest impediment. Sco can crank out brillant records full of memorable tunes, and also records that are snoozers because the tunes aren't memorable.

    And Sco has records that are snoozers because he's working with a concept that really doesn't bring out his strengths. I think he learns from his duds, most of the time. But I've sold off a few Sco albums because the tunes just weren't interesting enough for repeated listening.

    I subscribe to a theory that, while it's a crude dichotomy, might have some grain of truth.

    There are 1.) intellectual musicians and there are 2.) technical geniuses, idiot savants if you will.

    Okay, actually, there's a spectrum there, but those are the opposing poles. Birelli might be closer to the Art Tatum end of the spectrum. He may be an artist who would shine the most soloing as a sideman, with someone else setting the direction of the music.

    Duke Ellington, a composer and conceptualist, needed the virtuosity of Johnny Hodges, and Johnny Hodges needed Ellington and Strayhorn's arrangements and compositions. (I love Ellington's piano playing, but I don't want to muddy my point any further)

    Maybe Birelli is a misplaced Johnny Hodges. But there isn't always an Ellington around to join, and even Hodges left that fertile environment for a few years to go it alone. Money, ego, and artistic opportunity are so hard to get working in syncronicity.
    3) Maybe Bireli just doesn't care: This is probably the main reason...he's a Gypsy so playing guitar is a lifestyle. He simply doesn't have the same career motivations that the Gadjos have. On a certain level, he's probably just happy to play, whether it's at the camp or at Carnegie hall. He's pulled a no show at more concerts then I can count. Behavior like that says it all...

    Maybe so. Though there have been some pretty irresponsible Gadjos musicians thoughout history. I don't know if deep down, Bireli has more or less ambition than, say, Chet Baker. The most irresponsible Gadjos tend to be alcoholics and/or drug addicts. Is it bad management mixed with bad artistic judgements?

    And how many continental European jazz musicians (outside of Gypsy Jazz) can you name who don't record for ECM? I can think of a few that I've pursued--Hans Bennick and Misha Mengelberg, maybe NHOP...I know I own records of others, but my point is that ECM seems to be about the only label over there that sells here in North America.

    BTW, I'm no Birelli expert--the Vienne DVD is the only product of his I own.
  • lukejazzlukejazz Natchitoches, Louisiana✭✭✭ Dunn Belleville
    Posts: 22
    Hi All -

    I believe that it's likely Birelli probably has not done the publicity work that other artists have. It takes a certain amount of prodding the press, etc. to make the music biz machine work no matter how great you are.

    I wrote the editor of Just Jazz Guitar a couple of years ago and asked if he had considered doing a piece on Birelli. He responded by saying that he had tried to interview BL but didn't get very far. A lot of yes and no answers etc. You can imagine how far that would get anyone trying to get publicity.

    On the other hand it's been good to see him get some articles in a couple of guitar magazines over the past year or so, so maybe he or his management are taking a new approach.
  • KcoxKcox Montreal, QCNew
    Posts: 110
    Who?

    I live in Canada, but I've never heard of the guy up here either. Is he any good?



    :wink: :wink: :wink: :wink: :wink: :wink:
  • KcoxKcox Montreal, QCNew
    Posts: 110
    Ok, I was kidding but I think maybe we could be missing the obvious here... Birelli isn't American. By contrast, everyone else mentioned (to my limited knowledge) is. Doesn't that strike anyone else as less than a coincidence?
  • scotscot Virtuoso
    Posts: 508
    Birili WAS pretty famous back in the 80s. He toured Europe with Jaco Pastorious, they made a record or two together. There were plenty of articles about him in GP, Frets etc back then too. I even remember seeing an article about him in Vanity Fair in '81 or '82. The most probable reason he never got the acclaim here that DiMeola, Metheny etc got was that he did not tour here all the time like those guys. Also he was usually recorded on Euro labels and those recordings were not always the easiest to find.

    Plus Birili's playing (as a front man) always had that je ne sais quoi that made him appealing to guitar geeks but not especially so to mainstream jazz lovers. He was always technically strong but not always especially melodic. I've been listening to Birili since I bought a cassette of "Routes to Django" a long time ago, and my opinion of Birili has not changed much over the years. To me, he's at his best when he is playing solo guitar, or as a sideman. I agree with Neil's assessment of this. The best ensemble playing I ever heard by Birili was on the two CDs he did with Richard Galiano, which to this day is some of the best, most inspired jazz guitar playing I have ever heard. As a solo guitarist, he's awesome, and always has been.

    I doubt if his not being American has much to do with it. Ed Bickert and Lenny Breau is/was always very popular here, so was Grapelly, Errol Garner and on and on.
  • PhilPhil Portland, ORModerator Gallato 452 & Anastasio
    Posts: 624
    Perhaps he's not famous in the US, as Miles Davis didn't ask him to be one of his sidemen, like Sco and Stern...

    cheers

    Phil
  • JackJack western Massachusetts✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 1,911
    Isn't 'famous jazz guitarist' sort of an oxymoron?

    In Bireli's case I think one of the biggest issues is simply access. In those dark pre-Internet days of not too long ago, you couldn't just walk into a Djangobooks store and choose from the plethora of discs you can find here on the site. So maybe the level of recognition in the general public will start to change. Without the web, I probably still wouldn't know about the Live in Vienne DVD...

    Then there's the American issue: I don't think it's the fact that he's not American, but rather the fact that he doesn't sound American. He doesn't rely on the tropes that most Americans associate with jazz guitar. Django has certainly had the same trouble-who was it that said something like "Django? A clown with a mandolin!"-and I think the US jazz world has always been tougher to break into for these guys, even when the musicians here really appreciate the talent. It's sort of the "You're not doing it right" problem (an attitude common in gypsy jazz circles, too); snobbishness, essentially.

    One question: is Bireli more famous in Canada than the US? My gut reaction is yes, but I don't really know.

    Best,
    Jack.
  • MichaelHorowitzMichaelHorowitz SeattleAdministrator
    Posts: 5,773
    Thanks for all the responses!

    I think when I said "famous", I meant widely known and respected in the guitar world. I'm not talking about the general listening audience. I think George Benson is the only one to actually get famous out side of the jazz world...and that's because he quit playing jazz and can sing!

    Bireli sort of is famous in the guitar world. Probably more in Europe. In the US he doesn't seem to get the same hype that so many others get. There aren't hordes of Bireli wannanbes out there....at Berklee pretty much everyone wanted to be Pat Metheny, John Scofield, or Mike Stern. A couple of guys were more old school and liked Wes. And a few where into a John McLaughlin world music sort of thing. As far as I know, no one wanted to be Bireli. Sure, some people knew that there was this Gypsy child prodigy that played like Django. But it seemed to end there.

    I think the fact that he's not American probably does have a lot to do with it. Mostly because we're talking about jazz, and there's definitely a bias against non-Americans in jazz. But plenty of guys make it....like NHOP. But in many cases, non-Americans seem to have more success playing some sort of hyphenated form of jazz (i.e. Latin-Jazz, Balkan-Jazz, and of course, Gypsy-Jazz.) I think it's safe to say that Bireli is going to do better in the US with a Sel-Mac then he would with his archtop. When he's playing Django he's so much more interesting to Americans...it's something different. Very European, and very Gypsy. The fact that he could out do Mike Stern on a Strat is besides the point...

    Nevertheless, Bireli seems to be keeping a really diverse performance schedule. His upcoming CD with Joey Defrancesco tells us that he's doing a lot more then Django these days. But is anybody listening?

    'm
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