When Biréli Lagrène's Routes to Django: Live was issued in 1980, the 13-year-old jazz guitarist was immediately praised by critics as a protégé of Django Reinhardt. He had already won a prize in a festival at Strasbourg in 1978, and his appearance at a Gypsy festival was broadcast on television. For the next five years, Lagrène would mime Reinhardt's style, even recording versions of the master's "Nuages" and "Djangology" on Swing '81. Over time, however, his role as a protégé began to seem limited. "When I was a kid," Lagrène later recalled, "I used to put on the record again and again, until I succeeded in redoing him [Reinhardt]. Afterwards, I understood that respecting the great guitarist was worth much more than imitating him...."
Lagrène was born a Sinti Gypsy on September 4, 1966, in Alsace. His father had been a prominent guitarist during the 1930s, and Lagrène started playing guitar at four or five. "My father was a big Django fan and a Stéphane Grappelli fan and he just loved this Hot Club de France music," Lagrène told Peter Anick in Fiddler Magazine. "He also grew up with it, so since he was a guitar player, he wanted us -- me and my brother -- to become guitar players and to play Django Reinhardt's music." By seven, Lagrène was playing jazz, eventually focusing on Reinhardt's distinct style. "When I was about nine years old," Lagrène later told Guitar Player, "I didn't even realize that I could play the guitar or that I was a musician. I just played it as easily as eating food. Later, I got together with a guitar teacher to learn about scales and picking, but he told me I already knew everything, and he walked away after about half an hour." In his late teens, Lagrène's musical taste began to evolve as he absorbed players like Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix; he also began playing electric guitar. "The concept of the 'heir apparent' to Django playing distorted rock guitar solos on his Yamaha solid-bodied instrument must have disillusioned many diehards," wrote Andy Mackenzie, "but Lagrène has lost none of his original ability."
Lagrène has been an active live performer since the 1970s. In 1984 as his career was just beginning, he appeared at the Django Reinhardt Tribute at Fat Tuesdays in New York City. "Mr. Lagrène showed that he is more than a remarkable clone, as he added his own colorations to the Reinhardt manner, particularly in his original improvisations," wrote John S. Wilson in The New York Times. In 1997, Lagrène appeared at the New York Blue Note with Larry Coryell and Billy Cobham. Lagrène has also continued to record a steady stream of albums. In 2002, Dreyfus issued Gypsy Project, a recording that found him returning to Reinhardt and the classic jazz songbook. "This album should not be seen as an acceptable substitute for the original Reinhardt recordings," noted Rick Anderson in Notes, "but should be considered an essential complement to them by any library supporting the study of jazz guitar."
Dreyfus issued Gipsy Routes in the late spring of 2008. He followed the album with Gipsi Trio on Dreyfus Jazz in 2010, accompanied by double bassist Diego Imbert and fellow guitarist Hono Winterstein, and collaborated with the Rosenberg Trio on Djangologists the same year. In 2012, he recorded a straight-ahead jazz set for Universal entitled Mouvements with saxophonist Franck Wolf, drummer Jean-Marc Robin, and Hammond organist Jean-Yves Jung. Also in 2012, Lagrène was asked to participate in the 50th career anniversary concert celebration for violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. He appeared in a trio with the honoree and bassist Stanley Clarke. Though the other members had played -- and recorded -- together before, the guitarist had never interacted with either before that evening. The trio members electrified the audience and astonished one another with their swinging rapport. Two years later they entered IRS Studios in Brussels and emerged with an album four days later. D-Stringz was released by Impulse! in late 2015. ~ Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.