An adept French guitarist, Biréli Lagrène has drawn praise for his fertile blend of swinging continental jazz, post-bop, and fusion. Emerging with Routes to Django: Live in 1980, the then 13-year-old guitarist was quickly praised as an heir to the legendary Django Reinhardt. Over time, however, he broadened his approach, exploring artists like Wes Montgomery, Larry Coryell, and Jimi Hendrix, influences he displayed on 1988's Inferno and 2008's Electric Side. Nonetheless, as evidenced by 1992's Standards, 2005's Move, and 2018's Storyteller, Lagrène remains a leading proponent of both the straight-ahead and gypsy jazz traditions.
Lagrène was born into a Romani family on September 4, 1966, in Saverne, Alsace, France. Both his father and grandfather had been prominent guitarists, and Lagrène was first introduced to the instrument around age four. Under his father's influence, Lagrène was soon absorbing the music of guitarist Django Reinhardt, as well as recordings by violinist Stéphane Grappelli and the Hot Club of France. By age seven, he was already a gifted performer and garnered increasing attention throughout the 1970s, especially after he won a prize at a festival in Strasbourg in 1978 and performed on television as part of an appearance at a Gypsy festival broadcast. In 1981, he made his solo debut with Routes to Django: Live. The studio-album Fifteen followed a year later, featuring more Reinhardt songs and jazz standards.
During his late teens, Lagrène's musical taste began to evolve as he started playing electric guitar and absorbing players like Wes Montgomery, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, and Jimi Hendrix. In 1984, he appeared at the Django Reinhardt Tribute at Fat Tuesdays in New York, where he showcased his stylistically expansive sound. He signed to Blue Note and issued a handful of genre-crossing albums: 1988's Inferno, 1989's Foreign Affairs, and 1990's Acoustic Moments. All of these albums found the guitarist exploring a mix of post-bop, fusion, and Reinhardt-style pieces. The straight-ahead Standards, with bassist Niels Pedersen and drummer Andre Ceccarelli, arrived in 1992.
With 1995's My Favorite Django, Lagrène returned to his love of traditional gypsy swing. Over the next decade, he made occassional forays into fusion, while continuing to balance his love of Django Reinhardt, straight-ahead jazz and bop influences. He also kept a steady live schedule, appearing live at Marciac in 1994 and at New York's Blue Note in 1997 with Larry Coryell and Billy Cobham. In 1998, he issued the Frank Sinatra tribute Old Blues Eyes, with pianist Maurice Vander, bassist Chris Minh Doky, and drummer Ceccarelli. In 2002, he issued Gypsy Project, yet another album that found him returning to Reinhardt and the classic jazz songbook. Similar albums followed, including 2005's Move, 2006's Djangology, and 2007's Just the Way You Are. A year later, he issued the fusion-influenced Electric Side.
He then paired with guitarist Hono Winterstein and bassist Diego Imbert for 2009's Gipsi Trio. That same year, he also released his own Summertime. In 2012, he recorded a straight-ahead jazz set for Universal entitled Mouvements with saxophonist Franck Wolf, drummer Jean-Marc Robin, and Hammond organist Jean-Yves Jung. Also in 2012, Lagrène was asked to participate in the 50th career anniversary celebration for violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, during which he appeared in a trio with Ponty and bassist Stanley Clarke. Inspired by their chemistry on stage that night, the trio stayed in touch, and in 2015 paired again for the studio album D-Stringz on Impulse! In 2018, the guitarist issued Storyteller, featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and percussionist Mino Cinélu. ~ Matt Collar