Following is the first of special interviews I plan to conduct with artists and participants in the Gypsy jazz arena. Each interviewee is making important contributions to our chosen genre of choice. These interviews are dedicated in memory of Mary Honcoop who passed away nearly one year ago on Nov. 6, 2005. Her unselfish devotion to Gypsy jazz provided us with means to advance our growth, understanding, and comradreship through this music. Her last wish for me -- for us -- was to continue our growth as guitarists. I hope these interviews will help us do that.
[i]Dave Biller is known in Austin Texas as a top guitarist who can play everything from country swing to bebop. In his big bag of tricks is a batch of some of the tastiest Django licks in America. I recently spoke with Dave and asked him for his thoughts about Gypsy Jazz, his CD LeRoy’s Swing, and how he developed his great sense of Django style.[/i]
[color=yellow]AE: Dave, tell us about the Gypsy jazz Austin scene?[/color]
DB: We just had the Austin Django Jazz Festival in September. A lot of people came out of the woodwork that I didn’t know were into this stuff. It was a cozy, decent and very enthusiastic crowd. People really like this music. The big names playing at the festival were Angelo Debarre, John Jorgenson, and Robin Nolan. Also playing were the Hot Club of San Diego, and local bands including Django’s Moustache, Paris 49 (with Olivier Giraud formerly of 8 ½ Souvenirs), and my group, the Dave Biller Combo. Altogether, there are about five bands around town playing Gypsy jazz.
[color=yellow]AE: How long have you been playing guitar, and how long have you been interested in Gypsy jazz? [/color]
DB: I’ve been playing guitar for 27 ½ years. I really got into Django in earnest back in the mid to late 90’s—back when there were like three or four of us doing this stuff and when getting any information was a challenge. I had to order my picks directly from France. I remember one time at a gig, I dropped an expensive Dugain pick and it rolled under a table and I jumped down on my hands and knees, crawling under the people’s table to get it. That’s how hard it was back then to get a decent pick!
[color=yellow]AE: Why did you become interested in Django’s music?[/color]
DB: I kind of worked my way up to Django. I’d been aware of him pretty much since I first started playing guitar. My best friend and I started playing guitar on the same day. His dad was a 78 RPM collector and when we started playing guitar, of course, we were interested in rock and stuff, and his dad said, “If you want to really play guitar you should play like this guy,” That’s how he turned us on to Django. Of course, Django’s playing was light-years beyond me at the time, but from that day on, I considered him to be the greatest guitar player that ever lived. I always thought that. No matter what phase of playing I was going through as a guitarist, I thought Django was the best.
I started playing in a band that was an all acoustic band – the Asylum Street Spankers. That’s when I started getting interested in early jazz guitarists like Eddie Lang and Oscar Aleman and those guys – and of course Django.
One day about seven or eight years ago, Olivier Giraud called me up and said, “You’re not going to believe what I have. I’ve got a video of the only live footage of Django Reinhardt.” I said oh my God, I gotta see this. (Ed note: The video in reference is the J’Attendrai performance by the Quintette du Hot Club, 1938).When that video first became available it was like a dream come true--just to be able to watch Django move and play. For me, going over to Olivier’s and watching that video was the single most important event in my entire guitar playing career. It was that heavy! It freaked me out so bad. I almost had to quit playing gigs. I went home and I started completely over again. I started from scratch. I studied his right hand – that was what really blew me away. I knew what to expect from his left hand – everyone knows about his injury. What I wasn’t prepared for was how graceful, powerful and incredible his right hand was. I realized that this was the key to being able to begin to play this music. I went home and basically started over; playing one note at a time with a metronome clicking at 60 bits a minute. I studied his right hand over and over and even copied the superficial aspects of his playing like tucking in the middle finder of the right hand. I retain these things to this day. Of course the next thing I needed was the right guitar. I got in touch with Jacques Mazzoleni and he sold me my first Dupont.
[color=yellow]AE: What other Gypsy guitars have you owned?[/color]
DB: I had a Favino for a while; and **** and the guys at Dell’ Arte made me a beautiful oval hole guitar that I played for several years.
DB: It was a little while after I saw the Django video, I learned there were still Gypsies playing this style. Bireli, at the time, had long since given the stuff up and moved on. And while there were his old records, the other stuff from players like Raphael Fays was nearly impossible to find. The Rosenbergs were the first guys I could find. Finding other players was hard; especially some of the older guys that I really like.
[color=yellow]AE: Let me ask a few questions about your CD, LeRoy’s Swing (Buffalo Records). For a starter, why’s it called LeRoy’s Swing?[/color]
DB: LeRoy was actually my grandfather’s name and he was a guitar player. The CD is dedicated to him. LeRoy also happens to be my middle name and a lot of people call me that. If you happen to see anything by LeRoy Biller, that’s also my stuff.
The original name of the band was Les Niglos – which means the hedgehogs in Romani. Since the CD was originally marketed in Japan, there was concerne d the name might get mistranslated. We were persuaded to change the name of the group, and they just kind of put the CD out under my name.
[color=yellow]AE: Why was the CD released in Japan?[/color]
DB: Actually, we were going to release it here, just put it out ourselves.
We were looking for someone to distribute it and this label from Japan had already done some stuff with another group I was in called the Jazz Pharaohs, and the Spankers as well – also groups like the Hot Club of Cowtown and others. Frankly, they were the only ones that were the least bit interested in distributing it. So they gave us some money and we went with it. We never did find an American distributor. (Ed note: LeRoy’s Swing is available from [url=http://www.gypsyjazz.net]www.gypsyjazz.net[/url]
[color=yellow]AE: What about your line up on the CD?[/color]
DB: It’s interesting how the line up came together. While playing with the Spankers, I ran into these young guys that lived up in Philadelphia who played guitar and bass. They were like former punk and def-metal guys, but down here they were really interested in playing more traditional styles – especially the bass player. In fact, when I talked to him he said his favorite bass player was Louis Vola (who played with Django Reinhardt) and I said, hmm, interesting… There was also another guitar player here who was really interested in playing rhythm so I met them all at my house, we played a couple of tunes and they definitely showed the makings of being good at it. Right there and then I said, “Okay, we’re a band now.”
It was a four piece at first but I knew this other guy – a clarinet player who played a mixture of jazz and Jewish music, so I thought, I bet this guy to could really nail this stuff. I wanted to have a clarinet player. I knew a couple of fiddle players, but I really wanted a clarinet for something different. I knew this guy – Ben Saffer – would be the perfect guy.
I taught these guys how to play the right way and then taught them the tunes and that’s how it started. At that time you weren’t going to find anyone off the street who knew much about Gypsy jazz.
[color=yellow]AE: How did you recorded the CD?[/color]
DB: We recorded it in 2001 or 2002 at a studio in Austin called Wire. We just sat in the room and recorded it live. We played for a few hours and basically recorded everything we played. There was something like 23 songs; including a lot of stuff we didn’t release. Basically, we just sat and recorded some tunes and kept it as low key as possible. I like the way it turned out because it has some rough edges, it made it sound kind of raw and gave the recording life. I didn’t want the CD to sound too polished.
Each person was mic’ed and we had an overhead mic. I wanted the mic’ing to be as simple as possible too. I played about half the record on my Dell’ Arte, and the other half on my old Gibson ES-175. I can’t remember exactly what amp I used but it was a small tube amp. Possibly my Fender Pro-Junior or an old Epiphone amp I had.
[color=yellow]AE: Who are you playing with now? Are you playing in a Gypsy jazz group?[/color]
DB: I have a jazz trio now; I kind of went off in playing like bop stuff. However, Django is always with me. We play Troblant Bolero and other stuff by Django.
[color=yellow]AE: Back to your CD. I find it interesting the Django material on your CD is from his later period…[/color]
DB: It’s interesting that you should point that out. While I love Django from every phase of his career, my favorite stuff he played is kind of at the point where his critics say he’d lost it. I think (the critic’s opinion) is a pile of hogwash. He played some incredible stuff. It was really hip and deeply melodic. My favorite session is from January 1946 where he cut that incredible version of Melody Crepuscule, and Coquette. There were eight sides he cut that day and I’ve managed to find all the 78 RPMs of them. Melody Crepuscule is called Love’s Melody on the 78 and it is the most perfectly executed piece of guitar music I’ve ever heard. It is just absolutely, spotlessly perfect. And the 78s are incredible. His guitar work just jumps off the record and it’s like he’s sitting in the room with you.
I learned every solo from every one of those tunes. I didn’t write them down. I memorized them note for note, and played them every day. I was way into it. I still remember a couple of them. When he started playing electric guitar, I loved that too.
[color=yellow]AE: I hear a lot of Fapy in what you are playing too. Do you feel that way?[/color]
DB: It very well could be. I checked out those guys a lot. I kind of went in phases where I’d listen to nothing but Django for like two months; then for two weeks listen to other guys, and then go back to Django for two months. So I definitely leaned way more into Django, but I did listen to a lot of the other guys to get perspective and decide where I wanted to go with this stuff.
I also listened extensively to some of Django's contemporaries, like the Ferre brothers. My favorite of all those earlier guys was Tchan Tchou. Those records were unbelievably rare back then--still are--but I had sources who scored me tapes.
My goal was never to learn to play exactly like Django or to be the foremost American Gypsy jazz guitar player or anything like that. All I really wanted to do was to absorb as much of Django as I could and mostly get inside his head and figure out how he spontaneously came up with all this melodic material that he did all the time. I mean, 900 some solos he did and not a single dud.
[color=yellow]AE: So what did you learn about Django’s playing?[/color]
DB: I counted it up one time and I think I learned about 56 solos by Django—pretty much from all eras of his playing from the 30s to his last sessions in the 50s. He definitely played some pattern oriented material that lays out for two fingers on the guitar, there’s no question about that. The way he arpeggiates everything for example. As you study his material chronologically, you can see how he figured out stuff that he really wasn’t able to play before, and gradually was able to play more scale-type things,until he really didn’t have any limits so far as I can see. However, initially his impediment did dictate certain kinds of pattern playing. But that was what was so cool; it was such a unique sound. It always sounds fresh the way he played it.
[color=yellow]AE: You mentioned being melodic. I find your original songs are also very melodic. It seems to me you have a clear appreciation of good melody.[/color]
DB: That’s the thing that draws me most to Django’s playing. He was so incredibly hip, even thought the jazz world didn’t see it like they should have.
[color=yellow]AE: Where can someone hear an MP3 sample of your work on LeRoy’s Swing?[/color]
DB: I think there are some samples on the Buffalo Record site. It’s in Japanese but you can still look at it. (Ed note: Check [url=http://www.buffalo-records.com/buffalocds/index-bu.html]http://www.buffalo-records.com/buffalocds/index-bu.html[/url]
[color=yellow]AE: You also play a whole variety of swing styles…[/color]
DB: I have an extremely short attention span. In fact, learning Django is probably the most focused thing I’ve done in my whole life.
[color=yellow]AE: We’re all better off for it. Thanks for doing it.[/color]
LeRoy’s Swing (Buffalo Records)[/color]
Players: Dave Biller (guitar), Ryan Gould (bass), Anthony Locke (rhythm guitar), Ben Saffer (clarinet), Jeff Seaver (rhythm guitar)
Tracks: 1. 12th Year 2. Anniversary Song 3. LeRoy's Lion 4. Japanese Sandman 5. Samois 6. Gadjo's Theme 7. Artillerie Lourde 8. Cavalerie 9. Claire de Lune 10. Valse de Niglos 11. Troublant Bolero 12. Tea for Two 13. Sheik of Araby