Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Robin Nolan & Gypsy Jazz - Meeting George Harrison's Favourite Guitarist in the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse

The name ‘Django’ means ‘I Awake’.  A great name for a jazz guitarist whose music awakens everyone who listens to it.  That’s Django Rheinhardt I’m talking about, who famously played with two fingers less than anybody else because the gypsy caravan in which he lived with his young wife burned down, and he never recovered proper use of his hand.
Robin Nolan’s a guitarist rooted in the music of Django Rheinhardt. The influence is unmistakable, but he's definitely his own man. So much so, that most articles precede his name with the word ‘legendary’. ‘You play a mighty fine guitar, Robin Nolan,’ Willie Nelson said when he happened upon him on the streets of Amsterdam, honing his guitar skills and developing what was to become his own distinctive sound.  And George Harrison obviously thought so too, because when he heard his gardener playing Robin’s CD he invited him straight over to play at his Christmas bash.

From the Leidseplein in Amsterdam to Friar Park.  Some jump.  ‘I was terrified at first,’ said Robin when we met yesterday lunchtime at the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse. ‘Friar Park was a fantasyland. A great castle of a place in its own grounds. It was everything you’d expect, only more so.  George and Olivia were super-friendly. And everyone we played for was famous except for us.’

Interestingly, Robin was even more scared playing before a gypsy audience. But that was at Samois-sur-Seine in France, the definitive Django festival, which gypsies travel to from across the world. Samois is the high altar of gypsy jazz - the final resting place of Django Rheinhardt himself. The first time he attended, Robin was knocked out by the way the gypsies played. What with the music, the camp fires, the river and the moonlight it was a magical experience.  ‘The gypsies were purists,’ Robin said.  ‘Django was their god.  Their strength lay in the tradition. I was just some guy from England who loved the music. Yet when I came to play for them myself, they liked what I did. I’d say I’m better at being imaginative and creative than at delivering the music note perfect. I have a sense of humour too, and I use it to get my own message across.’

At Friar Park, Robin may have been wide-eyed, but he knew that none of George Harrison’s famous guests, including Eric Clapton, could play what he did.  It was the first of many gigs for the Harrison family. Robin played at Dhani Harrison’s wedding. He even played at George’s wake, when the sense of Harrison’s spirit was palpable in the room.

‘You were my father’s secret weapon,’ Dhani Harrison told him once. ‘He loved watching people’s jaws drop when you began to play.’

With Chris Quinn on rhythm guitar and Arnaud van den Berg on bass, Robin is currently on a UK tour.  Thursday the trio will be playing at the Royal Albert Hall, and on Friday, courtesy of Theatre Severn, we in Shrewsbury will be their hosts.  Arnaud comes from Amsterdam like Robin, and like Robin too,  Chris has honed his guitar skills on the streets – though not in Amsterdam but on Pride Hill.  In fact it was Chris who first brought Robin to Shrewsbury, and they’ve been playing together on Robin’s UK tours ever since. Occasionally Robin will include other musicians but mostly it’s the three of them taking songs well known in gypsy jazz circles, blending them with rock, blues and jazz and making them their own. 

It’s this making it their own that I’m really interested in.  This is jazz, after all, and jazz is always changing and developing.  Robin reckons that in recent years the whole gypsy jazz phenomenon has really taken off.  ‘It’s opened up globally, and much of that is down to the internet,’ he says. ‘Musicians are going online and seeing and hearing gypsy jazz being playing by the custodians of the tradition, the gypsies themselves, and they’re learning from them and stamping the music with their own identity, blending in sounds from their own cultures.  Gypsy jazz from Argentina, for example, with its strains of the tango, is different to the young gypsy jazz scene currently taking place in France.’ 

What were the names I should be listening out for, I wanted to know. Adrien Moignard was the first name Robin mentioned. ‘Guys like him are absolutely killing it,’ he said. ‘Listen out for Birelli Lagrene too.  He’s the man. They used to call him the wunderkid. Django was progressive for his time. He was playing the electric guitar by the end of his life. And these guys are progressive too.’

And if I wanted to listen to Django Rheinhardt himself? Say I’d never heard him and wanted to know where to start. ‘Minor Swing. 1937. That’s your track,’ Robin said, quick as a flash. ‘It’s the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of gypsy jazz.’

Robin’s come a long way from the wide-eyed young musician from the streets playing for George Harrison and his mates. He’s performed his own particular brand of gypsy jazz all round the world, and headlined at all the major festivals. I asked him if that Christmas at Friar Park was his most outstanding gig, and he grinned and said it couldn’t help but stand out.  But a gig in the north of Iceland sprang to mind as well - gale force winds and hail beating down outside whilst inside, in a warm fug heated by natural hot springs, Robin and his trio played to a fantastic crowd.

What next, I asked. There’ll be a new album, Gypsy Blue, out later in the year, produced by Dhani Harrison. Then there are more tours, and Master Classes like the one Robin did earlier this week in the Forest of Dean. Teaching has always been an important part of what he does.  The Robin Nolan tutorial books are famous for taking the mystique out of gypsy jazz guitar. They’re credited with being an important element in the gypsy jazz renaissance in the US. 

In addition, Robin is responsible for a monthly online magazine, available as an app on iPad. In fact, two magazines – one free, the other a to be paid-for issue. I’ve had a quick whiz through one of these issues, and can tell you that it’s is a portal into a whole other world packed full not only of playing tips but  interviews and news about gypsy jazz. If you’re interested to find out more, the link's

Tonight as I write this, the Robin Nolan trio will be playing Tenbury Wells. They’re in for a treat. “Robin Nolan is so amazingly good,’ said the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman in an  interview for Dutch music magazine ALOHA. As soon as I record something in the spirit of Django Reinhardt, I’ll book him a flight and bring him into the studio.’

As commendations go, it doesn't get much better than that.

Click here for: Robin Nolan Trio at Theatre Severn
Click here for the Robin Nolan Trio with Jazz Violinist Jason Anick at the 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival   

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