The timeless appeal of the gypsy jazz form is vividly demonstrated by 1910, the stunningly accomplished fourth full-length album from French quartet Les Doigts de l'Homme (pronounced "Lay Dwah Del-ohm"). Released on ALMA Records on June 7, 2011 (with distribution via Universal in Canada, ADA/Warner in the U.S.), it marks the group's debut North American release. They have already earned a devoted fan base in the U.K., Europe and Asia, thanks to the quality of their albums and extensive international touring.
The group stresses that while gypsy styles are the core element of their sound, they are not gypsy musicians. Coming from diverse musical backgrounds, they have been brought together by a deep mutual passion for gypsy jazz. On their earlier albums, Les Doigts de l'Homme skillfully integrated rock, world music, and gypsy elements, while 1910 has a more singular creative focus. It is designed as an homage to the true father of gypsy jazz, guitarist/composer Django Reinhardt, with the title referring to Django's year of birth. As the centenary of Reinhardt's birth approached, Les Doigts de l'Homme decided to mark the milestone by recording a new album inspired by his music. Guitarist Olivier Kikteff explains that "we wanted to pay a heartfelt tribute to Django's music and to the amazing musical legacy he has given to us. He is a perpetual source of inspiration."
Django died in 1953, but a half century later he would surely have been proud of the approach Les Doigts de l'Homme have taken in their tribute. They do the master proud, not by slavishly imitating his sound, but by adding their own musical signature while always retaining the honest passion that characterized Reinhardt's work. Django was influenced and inspired by such varied styles as New Orleans jazz, French accordion music, and American popular music, and a similarly eclectic feel is audible on 1910.
The album features six fresh interpretations of Reinhardt compositions. "Improvisation No. 2" is given a sparse and gentle reading, while "Swing 48" is simultaneously fast, fluent and fun. American Songbook classics treated to gypsified versions include "Blue Skies" (given a jaunty makeover here), "Ol' Man River," and "There Will Never Be Another You." Olivier Kikteff is a superb composer in his own right, as showcased by four of his original tunes on 1910. One of these is the title track, a breezy tune with an infectious melody, while "St. James Infirmary Blues" shows Olivier shares Django's love of the blues. The mellow and quietly haunting treatment of Lev Knipper's "Russian Melody" features guest Stephane Chausse on clarinet and further shows the group's impressive stylistic range.
Kikteff takes the lead guitar role in Les Doigts de l'Homme, and he is always ably abetted by his three comrades, rhythm guitarists Yannick Alcocer and Benoit Convert and double bassist Tanguy Blum. It is appropriate that the group's name translates as "The Fingers of Men," for these four men are all fleet-fingered wizards of the fret.
Les Doigts de l'Homme formed as a trio comprising Kikteff, Alcocer and Blum in early 2003. Their first album, Dans Le Monde, followed, and the group honed their sound by gigging on the street. Word of their energetic and fresh sound soon spread, and in February 2004 they played a 70-concert French tour. A five-song EP, Nuclear Gypsy Jazz, and further touring fuelled the buzz, and 2005's Les Doigts de L'Homme album earned unanimously positive reviews.
In 2008, they expanded to a quartet with the addition of Benoit Convert, already a well-respected gypsy jazz soloist. The group's fuller sound was showcased on their 2008 album Les Doigts Dans La Prise, another record welcomed with rave reviews. By this stage, the group's high-energy and entertaining live show found them in demand for performances in venues around the globe, from jazz clubs to rock festivals. Daily newspaper Ouest-France captured their appeal, noting that "this band brings a hint of world music, an energy close to punk bands, and an unmistakable authenticity."
The release of 1910 has already had European critics stretching for superlatives. "Les Doigts de l'Homme stand out as one of the best interpreters of Django's music while keeping their own personal and colourful jazz style," wrote Guitarist Acoustic. "The band explores gypsy jazz with a great energy and a witty sense of humour," wrote Francofans.
Now, the release of 1910 and June and July tour dates in Canada and the U.S. are poised to take the career of Les Doigts de L'Homme to the next level. We are in for a real sweet gypsy jazz treat.