By George Watson
Mark Morris brings his “Django in Georgetown” event back to the Georgetown Heritage Center, Sept. 22, to continue his effort to introduce Gypsy jazz to new audiences in a traditional folk manner. This time, the concert features Joscho Stephan, a guitar virtuoso who is also a master of the unique style and Morris’ own Gypsy Cattle Drive. Afternoon workshops for guitar, bass and violin are also offered. The German guitarist also performs at Caffe Solé in Boulder, Sept. 21.
“I’m clearly in love with gypsy swing music,” Morris explained. “It’s the music of Jean “Django” Reinhardt and Stephen Grapeli. They were most famous during the WWII era and developed a style of jazz that didn’t require trumpets and saxophones and drums and electric guitar. They developed a style of jazz that was all acoustic… two acoustic guitars, a violin and an upright bass.”
Gypsy jazz, also known as gypsy swing or hot club jazz, is a style of music often said to have been started by Reinhardt, regarded by some as one of the greatest guitar players of all time. He was the first important European jazz musician to make major contributions to the development of guitar music. The musician was foremost among a group of Romani guitarists working in and around Paris from the 1930s to the 1950s.
“They call it gypsy swing because it developed in these poorer gypsy camps in Europe. Some of the most virtuosic players that have ever developed in this kind of music have come from these small gypsy camps where there is a bunch of caravans and everyone has a fire at night, and they learn around that fire,” Morris explained. “Some of the most virtuosic musicians to ever walk the earth come from these gypsy camps, like Django Reinhardt and Stochelo Rosenberg.”
Stephan’s roots come from Reinhardt. He has not merely absorbed this music, but also interprets it on the highest level and is actively engaged in extending its boundaries. Despite his youth, after four highly acclaimed CDs and a DVD he has played his way into the illustrious circle of the finest Gypsy swing musicians in the world. He has played at Lincoln Center, Birdland, and in Nashville, and toured Europe.
Great jazz musicians including Paquito de Rivera, James Carter, Charlie Mariano and Grady Tate enthusiastically praised the talented newcomer after performing together. He has toured Australia with top guitarists Martin Taylor and Tommy Emmanuel and has performed with his own bands—trio to quintet—at numerous important European festivals.
Just 20 years old when he released his first CD on the highly-regarded label Acoustic Music Records, Stephan’s name was already known to insiders as a force to be reckoned with on the acoustic guitar. His debut was named “CD of the Month” by Guitar Player magazine and critics “waxed eloquent about this virtuoso young musician working in the swing tradition of Reinhardt,” which offers the ideal platform for Stephan’s remarkable technical abilities.
On his fourth album “Acoustic Live,” Stephan showcases his mastery of Gipsy jazz, accompanied by varying line-ups from trio to sextet, and simultaneously stretches the boundaries of the genre. It comes as no surprise that invitations to appear on renowned festivals around the world are ever more frequent.
Three musicians from Clear Creek County-based Rapidgrass make up Gypsy Cattle Drive, playing “high octane Gypsy swing” with rhythms that borrow from bluegrass, Latin, Western swing and Celtic music. The trio was born in Silver Plume in 2013 and consists of Texas Fiddle Champion Coleman Smith, Texas A&M bass virtuoso Carl Meinecke, and free-skiing guitarist Mark Morris. The group thrives off natural dynamics and energy while keeping a keen sense of musicianship in every song.
Morris, who also founded the award-winning Radpidgrass bluegrass band, is “really involved with the bluegrass music,” but also went to C.U. Denver where he studied jazz. “I wasn’t that attracted to electrical music, electric guitars and stuff,” he said. “I’ve always been really into string music, and [gypsy jazz] is pretty much the only outlet of jazz that invites all acoustic instruments. That’s the cool thing about folk music in general.” Gypsy jazz music, according to Morris, grew in a similar manner to the way bluegrass did in the U.S. as players didn’t need much money to have access to instruments.
“Reinhardt had a massive, massive impact on jazz in general, especially on the guitar and even more with acoustic music,” Morris explained. “Honesty, I grew up in Clear Creek County, and I introduced a lot of people in that community to a whole different brand of bluegrass with Rapidgrass. So, I’m hoping to do a similar thing: expose a mountain community in Colorado to this level of talent. I’m doing it because I like to bring that kind of art to the community of Clear Creek County.”
Come early and learn from the experts at afternoon music workshops hosted by Stephan and band members including Coleman Smith on violin and Carl Meincke on bass. Workshop tickets, which cost $40, include the concert.
The event’s organizer hopes to attracted both listeners and players to his gypsy jazz weekend. “The community can come and watch the concert and they’ll be completely dazzled by this kind of music, but I’m also attracting and inviting some of the players who are already into this [style] to help keep the music healthy and alive,” Morris explained. “I’m just doing a very small part to bring… players to Colorado that you would otherwise have to travel across the U.S. to learn from; just bring them right to Georgetown. It’s a cool opportunity to people who are interested in the music to come and learn from some of the best in the world.”
The first year of his event was a success, but he’d be happy with any result. “Selfishly, it’s my favorite kind of music,” he said. “I’m really passionate about doing it, so I’m kind of doing it for myself. I really love to play the music, too.” When “Django in Georgetown” is over, he hopes many more will share the same passion.
Tickets to the concert at 7 p.m. are $20 in advance or $22 at the door, if available. The Georgetown Heritage Center is located at 809 Taos St. Visit http://www.georgetowntrust.org or call 303-569-0289 for additional details and tickets.
© Originally published in the September 2017 issue of the MMAC Monthly
Photos courtesy Joscho Stephan