REVIEW: Harri Stojka Channels Django

It doesn’t take a guest appearance by Mr. Obvious to state the simple truth that it’s impossible to review an album called A Tribute To Gypsy Swing without mentioning Django Reinhardt, the legendary gypsy jazz guitarist. But this album’s artist, Harri Stojka, makes it easier because he embraces the comparison and makes no secret of his admiration and affection for Django.

Django Reinhardt occupies a rather unique spot for all guitarists. Although his background, with his innovative virtuosity and a short but colorful life, is similar to that of other jazz legends (Charlie Parker comes to mind), Reinhardt has somehow been elevated even further, and has reached almost god-like status with his followers. There are countless guitar-playing disciples, Djangophile fan clubs, festivals dedicated to him, and a number of small towns in Europe that depend on his fame to produce tourism earnings.

It’s pretty intimidating for other guitarists, but that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some who tried to follow him, including his own son Babik, Barney Kessel, Bireli Langrene and others, now including Harri Stojka.

Stojka was born in Vienna about a half-century ago, a Roma gypsy, and grew up in a musical environment that included exposure to the type of music played by Django, who is after all probably the best-known gypsy since Esmeralda.

As Stojka reached adulthood, he played professionally in all kinds of groups around Europe and handled all kinds of music, including blues and heavy metal. He was even fascinated by bebop for a while, and became a huge fan of Charlie Parker, attempting to put his own guitar signature on many of Bird’s tunes. In his day, Django was also fascinated by Parker, and that fact might have contributed to Stojka’s inevitable return to the music he remembered fondly and knew best. “When I got back to gypsy music, I felt like I had found something that was missing. So I can say that this is truly my music now.”

I listened to this album several times and – unusual for me – liked every cut a lot. They range from the expected Django tunes such as “Avalon” and “Nuages” to other early jazz era songs such as Bechet’s “Petit Fleur” and Fats Waller’s “Undecided”. In a change of pace, Stojka even sails into unusual waters with his surprising take on “Swanee River”. He’s backed up on different songs by a variety of accompanying players on rhythm guitar, banjo, bass, drums, and – of course – violin on several tunes, which are reminiscent of the old Reinhardt-Grappelli duo.

For a sample, I decided to post a tune that has been done by a lot of people for a lot of years, including (of course) Django, and lot of other jazz legends. I’ve always liked it and this version by Harri Stojka is now one of my favorites. It’s a little thing called “Limehouse Blues”.

My conclusion on this album is that Harri Stojka has the credentials, both as a guitarist and as a fellow gypsy, to be a solid follower of Django. He can “walk the walk”. (Or should that be “pick the pick”?)

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