When Bireli Lagrene'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, Lagrene 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," Lagrene 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...."
Lagrene was born a Sinti Gypsy on September 4, 1966, in Alsace. His father had been a prominent guitarist during the 1930s, and Lagrene 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," Lagrene 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, Lagrene was playing jazz, eventually focusing on Reinhardt's distinct style. "When I was about nine years old," Lagrene 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, Lagrene'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 Lagrene has lost none of his original ability."
Lagrene 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. Lagrene 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, Lagrene appeared at the New York Blue Note with Larry Coryell and Billy Cobham. Lagrene 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. ~ Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.