It’s fair to say that many excellent jazz and jazz/rock guitar players emerged during the 1980s. But arguably none – with the possible exception of Stanley Jordan – made as much of an impact as Bireli Lagrene.
He’s hardly a household name but Bireli recorded a few fine albums for Blue Note Records and toured extensively with Jaco Pastorius just before the bassist’s tragic death.
The French guitarist was seen in many circles as the natural heir to Django Reinhardt at the outset of the ’80s. The teenage prodigy wowed everyone with a few independent releases (initially in a manouche style) and European tours.
The key to his sound seemed to be absolute freedom. Like Jaco and Django, he has no fear. He tries things, always pushing himself. To paraphrase John McLaughlin, he’s swinging before he even starts playing. Inferno, his debut Blue Note album, featured some excellent, freewheeling electric playing – more Mike Stern and Van Halen than Reinhardt – but the musical settings were a bit stilted and it suffered from too many changes in personnel.
But Bireli found a great foil in producer and fellow guitarist Steve Khan, and their 1988 follow-up Foreign Affairs was a big improvement. I was mildly obsessed with this album for about a month during spring 1989 – I remember buying it on the same day as seeing ‘Rain Man’ in the cinema, fact fans…
There was far more of a ‘band’ vibe on this sophomore effort, and what a band: monster drummer Dennis Chambers is in Weather Report mode, with Zawinul-style half-time shuffles (‘Josef’) and fast Latin/fusion grooves (‘Senegal’). And check out his burning solo at the end of the title track. Keyboardist Koono is a huge find and also obviously a big Zawinul fan, and recently departed bassist Jeff Andrews plays as tastily as ever.
Possibly as a result of his sad death in September 1987, Jaco’s influence is all over this album, particularly on the catchy opener ‘Timothee’ which features a mischievous, brilliant fretless bass solo by Bireli in tribute to his friend and mentor. Elsewhere, Bireli’s sometimes outrageous guitar playing is typified by the screaming octave leap at the end of ‘St Jean’, and he uses a lot more tonal colours than on the debut album.
Tunes wise, Foreign Affairs‘ formula is not really that much different to the classic Blue Note albums of the ’60s – a few originals, a few sideman compositions and a few covers (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Jack Rabbit’ and Ira Gershwin/Vernon Duke’s ‘I Can’t Get Started’). The latter in particular exemplifies a great production job by Khan, always getting a warm and ambient sound.
Foreign Affairs is almost impossible to find on CD or vinyl these days but it’s just been added to streaming platforms, featuring some extra solo acoustic guitar tracks not on the original album. It’s well worth another listen, as is Inferno. Bireli stayed with Blue Note for a couple more albums in the early ’90s, but they were far more traditional propositions.