Gypsy jazz quintet Pearl Django returns to the Collective Visions Gallery this weekend for two shows. The gallery setting is a change from the type of venues the Seattle-based group often plays, but violinist Michael Gray said that’s a good thing.
“It’s a great spot to play,” Gray said. “We love the small venues. Playing for 10,000 people, which we do, can be daunting. In a small room you can really look everyone in the eye. It’s like a big house concert.”
Pearl Django is one of the most popular performers in the Bremerton gallery’s concert series, and has been invited back again and again. Last year, the group played just one concert, but this year they will perform an evening concert Jan. 20 and an afternoon show Jan. 21.
For the uninitiated, Gypsy jazz is a jumping, fast-paced style of jazz popularized in the ‘30s by French Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Together with violinist Stephane Grapelli and a band of like-minded musicians, Reinhardt reigned at the Hot Club of France, in pre-war Paris.
Reinhardt’s unique style was the result of an accident that almost ended his life at age 18. Already an accomplished musician at that age, Reinhardt was burned in a fire which left only the index and middle finger on his left hand usable. With this limitation, he developed an entirely new fingering style which continues to awe musicians and fans of the music.
Gray said Gypsy jazz has continued to grow in popularity over the last decade, and while he jokingly said they are not as big as their tongue-in-cheek namesake, grunge icon Pearl Jam, Pearl Django is one of the best-known bands of the genre.
“We sell more records than most gypsy jazz groups,” he said. “We’re making a living — and not getting rich.”
With its roots in the swing era of pre-war Europe and its branches reaching around the world, Gray said Gypsy jazz is not relegated to the “oldies” bin.
“It’s the kind of music that appeals to all ages — especially hot young guitarists,” he said. “But it also appeals to baby boomers who are tired of REO Speedwagon and are looking for something different, and to oldsters who remember it.”
The group currently consists of founder Neil Andersson on guitar, Gray on violin, Rick Leppanen on double bass, Greg Ruby, also on guitar and newcomer David Lange on accordion.
Pearl Django has performed at venues large and small around the world, including the “grandfather of all Gypsy jazz festivals,” the Django Festival at Samois Sur Siene, in Reinhardt’s hometown outside of Paris. It is considered an honor to be invited to perform at the festival of Gypsy jazz aficionados. The group also performed at the first Django Festival in Iceland and has performed annually at Djangofest on Whidbey Island.
Gray called the Whidbey Island event the best Django Festival in North America — and there are now many.
While the Gypsy guitarist left a vast repertoire of tunes, Gray said Pearl Django is not a musical archive.
“We don’t just dig up tunes and play them note for note,” he said.
The group plays its own compositions as well as contemporary European Gypsy jazz and American jazz standards with their own stamp on them.
Pearl Django has released seven CDs to date, and shows no sign of slowing down.
“As long as we can keep bringing something new to the table and contributing to the lexicon we’ll keep doing it,” he said.
Pearl Django performs 7 p.m. Jan. 20 and 4 p.m. Jan. 21 at Collective Visions Gallery, 331 Pacific Ave., Bremerton.
Tickets are $20 advance, $24 at the door. Advance tickets available at the gallery or by phone at (360) 692-3981.