(Re)Introducing Djangophonique: Andrew Brown and Co. are putting a modern spin on a jazz tradition
“When I say ‘modern music,’” says Andrew Brown, “what I mean is, like, anything after 1956.”
Brown is the band leader and lead guitarist for Djangophonique, the crisp Ann Arbor-based quartet that’s made a name for itself reveling in—and updating—the 1930s and 1940s music known as “gypsy jazz,” or jazz manouche. It's a sound primarily associated with the French-Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt, but Djangophonique applies the style to a range of genres, from country music to swing.
In 2020, Djangophonique released a live EP, Jazz Du Jour, some of which was recorded at the Blue Llama Jazz Club, but it came out just before the pandemic began. “That kind of put things on pause for a while,” Brown says.
But the band regrouped and last summer issued its first full-length album, Introducing Djangophonique, which garnered the quartet more and more attention. The group snagged some high-profile gigs, too, including the bluegrass-based Wheatland Music Festival, the Detroit Jazz Festival, and Ann Arbor's Top of the Park. While Djangophonique performs all over the area, its current home base is Ann Arbor's new North Star Lounge, where Brown is the creative director and the group has a residency most Wednesdays.
Django Reinhardt is widely considered to be one of the best guitar players of all time. He's renowned for his rhythmic ferocity and his “rest stroke technique," which Brown also employs.
“For most guitar players, the pick comes in at the top, and it hits the string, and it escapes out the bottom," Brown says. But with this particular technique, the pick “is coming in and it’s coming to land on the next string, so it rests on that string below. And so, it’s a lot of downstrokes. Basically, it creates an extremely loud sound from an acoustic instrument. That’s the goal. It’s a tone thing.”
A friend told Brown, “Watching you play makes me glad that I’m not a guitar string.” He was referring to “this dead weight of the hand just hammering into the string,” Brown says.
It sounds violent.
“Yeah, it’s ballistic,” he says.
What is it that so appeals to Brown about Django Reinhardt and his era?
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Brown says.
Then he describes it.
“I listen to that stuff, and it’s just, like, oh my god—the amount of emotion that’s in there. I think it’s just so joyous. It’s such a pure expression of emotion, that style of music. The joy and sorrow in all of those styles of music. Like in Dixieland jazz, when you hear the clarinet players wailing, and the dogfight at the end of the song where all the horns are going, and the melodies they wrote at that time—it sounds to me like these melodies are as old as time.”
The guitarist got his start in The Appleseed Collective, an eclectic ensemble with a wide array of influences—Brown mentions Celtic music, rock 'n' roll, and pop in the same breath. He says the experience taught him not only “how to be a musician” but also “how to run a business, how to market, all that stuff.” At that point, Brown says, he knew Django Reinhardt’s music but thought “the ability to play that style of music [was] something you were born with—or not born with, maybe.”
Another local guitarist, Michael Harrington, prompted Brown to start studying Reinhardt’s style in earnest, and they began performing together as Harrington Brown. Around that time, Brown went off to a Massachusetts music camp known as Django in June, where he met and studied with French manouche guitarists Angelo Debarre and Romane. “[I’d] been watching these guys on YouTube for the last five years,” he says, “and so then I get to go study with them.”
Brown then began looking around for other Michigan musicians with similar interests, eventually connecting with the current core of Djangophonique: Tyler Rindo (clarinet), Jorian Olk-Szost (upright bass), and Zach Croft (rhythm guitar), which is the ensemble that recorded Introducing Djangophonique. (Guitarist Erik McIntyre is a frequent live performer with the band, which "often appears in different incarnations thanks to Brown’s ever-growing network of collaborators within the jazz world," according to the group's website).
Djangophonique is primarily instrumental and the band's sound has a tart brightness on jazz standards (“I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” “What Is This Thing Called Love?”), Reinhardt originals (“Blues en Mineur,” “Douce Ambiance”), and songs you might not expect to hear interpreted manouche-style (“Just a Gigolo,” “On the Road Again”).
In its version of "On the Road Again," Djangophonique puts Reinhardt in conversation with Willie Nelson, who wrote the tune and was also influenced by the jazz-manouche legend. The video—one of three gorgeous animated clips the band commissioned to promote singles from Introducing Djangophonique—makes the connection clear: A miniature Reinhardt and Nelson, both made from cut paper, ramble around in a VW van and play guitars by a campfire. (The video was animated by Amy DeCaussin.)
Brown says learning to play this style of music is “kind of like learning a language. You start learning phrases just like you would learn in a language, right? And then for a while, it’s like you’re kind of parroting. And then after a long enough time, eventually you’re maybe even playing some of those same phrases. It’s like you can take the general ideas and speak the phrases in your own voice—or that becomes your voice.”
“When I hear that style, basically it sounds like someone telling you a story," Brown continues. "Really good improvisers—it sounds like a conversation to me. Rhythm is syllables—you know, people go up, they go down,” and he starts humming. “I guess it’s like reciting poetry or giving a speech.”
Has Andrew Brown done much of that?
He doesn’t go around reciting poetry?
But finding your voice when you’re initially emulating or inhabiting someone else’s style is tricky.
“I think in some ways, for me, it’s all about really absorbing the source material deeply," Brown says, "and also trying to play with an emotional connection to what you’re playing.”
He also says, “It can take a little while to get enough vocabulary in a particular style to really sound like you can play that style."
At Django in June, Brown says, the guitarist Romane told him something that stuck.
“He didn’t speak English,” Brown says, “so he says something in French and then the translator says, basically, that Romane can tell when someone is just playing a lick that they learned in their fingers—that they learned how to do it physically” and with technical proficiency.
Brown says Romane can also tell if the music an artist is playing is "really connected to their inner ear. ... Even if it’s the same line played by different people, [Romane] can tell how connected they are. So that’s one of the things that I sort of slowly learned.”
Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, LitHub, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere.
Djangophonique performs at The Ark on January 20 and celebrates the birthday of its namesake on January 25 at the North Star Lounge. On February 1, Djangophonique resumes its weekly Wednesday residency at North Star. Visit djangophonique.com for more information.