Robin Nolan on Django Reinhardt, hanging out with George Harrison and playing gypsy jazz
Although gypsy-jazz guitar pioneer Django Reinhardt died in 1953, there's been a steady stream of players inspired by him over the past few decades. One such player is Robin Nolan, who's been hailed as one of the world's leading guitarists in the Reinhardt tradition, in addition to being a favorite guitarist of the late George Harrison.
Nolan started to make a name for himself in the early '90s in the gypsy-jazz community while busking on the Leidseplein in downtown Amsterdam. Since then, he's gone on to tour at festivals around the world. While Nolan's gypsy-jazz chops are astonishingly fluid, he mixes it up a bit by occasionally tossing in flashes of Latin and pop. In advance of his show tonight at the Soiled Dove we caught up with Nolan and spoke with him about Django Reinhardt, and how Nolan got his start playing gypsy jazz guitar.
Westword: What initially made you gravitate towards Django's music and gypsy jazz?
Robin Nolan: What sealed the deal for me was going to the annual Django Reinhardt in Samois-sur-Sein near Paris. That's where Django passed, and that's where the gypsies have been meeting every year to celebrate him and his music. It's turned into a major festival. I first went there with my dad around 1990. I just saw the guys playing outside with the caravans and the whole romance just hit me over the head. I knew that's what I wanted to do.
How long had you been playing guitar before then?
I started playing guitar when I was six.
What kind of stuff were you playing before you got into gypsy jazz?
I started playing heavy metal. I was way into heavy metal like AC/DC and Iron Maiden. Then I got more into jazz fusion with people like Mike Stern and John Scofield. I've always like the acoustic guitar, and at home, I was always noodling on the acoustic guitar. So the gypsy thing really appealed in that way. But I was basically went from heavy metal to fusion to jazz to gypsy jazz.
You've put out a few books on playing gypsy jazz and teach. What are some of the most import things to keep in mind for people trying to get into playing gypsy jazz?
I think understanding the rhythm is the most important thing. You should be able to play the rhythm guitar yourself. Don't get too fancy with the left hand at first. Just try and understand the floating wrist concept and to learn a rhythm to a simple song like "Minor Swing" or a minor blues. Get that sound. I think that has to be your backbone with playing this music. Then it's just learning as many tunes as you can and just playing -- finding a buddy to play with and doing like that.
Are there are a lot of people who take the two-finger approach to playing like Django and really try to keep it authentic?
I guess there are a couple of maniacs out there who do it just with that in mind. The truth is because of Django's disability he reinvented the way of playing guitar. A lot of the licks go in more of linear way rather than any other way. So a lot of these licks are actually more handy to play with two fingers. Most of the gypsy guys tend to use three fingers. They don't use their pinky so much. The first two fingers have the most power and it gives it more of a drive. But if you're not a genius, you need all the fingers you can get. I use whatever I can.
I first saw you play about ten years ago in Amsterdam on the Leidseplein, and that's kind of where you got your start, right?
Yeah. I just playing on street for about ten years.
I've heard George Harrison was a big fan of your playing.
That happened from playing on the street, on the Leidseplein. One of his ex-gardeners bought a CD and gave it to George, and then George called me up out of the blue. We played at a Christmas party, and then he loved this kind of music. We used to play together and just hang out at his place. That was awesome. He was very eclectic in his musical tastes. He really dug this kind of stuff.
Are you just doing a few dates in the States this time around?
It's just a brief visit. I'm up here at Crested Butte for Djangofest. I'm up here for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Djangofest has been happening for the last ten years, with the main one being in Seattle. That's kind of like America's answer to the big gypsy festival in Samois that I was talking about. There are guys who come from all over the country to attend these things and there's workshops and jam sessions. It's a big get-together for guys on this scene.
Are there Djangofests in different parts of the States every year?
There's one on a little island off of Seattle. They do one in the Bay Area. They do this one. But it's quite a major thing. The thing about this music is that a lot of people who are into this music actually want to play it too. It's kind of like bluegrass, like there's loads of people camping out and jamming all night and playing at any level. That's the cool thing about this music is that you don't have to be really that good to start playing and having fun with other people.
What do you think it is about Django's music that just really appeals such a huge audience?
It's just kind of feel-good music. Just the beat and the rhythm makes you feel happy. If you play it to an audience you start off playing it with two guitars and someone banging out the rhythm. It just changes the mood straight away. Obviously, it's very portable. You just bring your guitar and play it outside. Play it anywhere. It's not a big deal like setting up drum kits. It's really social.