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Django Jazz Fest, featuring Baltimore's Ultrafaux, celebrates guitar innovator

Local act Ultrafaux will perform at the first Charm City Django Jazz Fest. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Jean "Django" Reinhardt became one of the 20th century's most important guitarists out of unfortunate circumstance.

After suffering life-altering burns as a teenager in a 1925 fire, the French musician retaught himself the guitar — using only his index and middle finger for solos. The unorthodox technique gave birth to a new style in 1930s Paris: Gypsy jazz. Had Reinhardt's ring and pinkie fingers not been paralyzed, there's no guarantee the world would ever have Gypsy jazz.

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"You have to imagine, all of his leads he did with two fingers," said Michael Joseph Harris, guitarist and composer in the Baltimore Gypsy jazz trio, Ultrafaux. "Miraculously, he came up with one of the best ways, harmonically, to approach the guitar because of his limitation. It was like truly making lemonade out of lemons."

Popular in Europe, Reinhardt's Gypsy jazz has seen a recent resurgence in the U.S., exemplified locally with this weekend's Charm City Django Jazz Fest. The two-day celebration of Reinhardt — the sound's creator and most influential player — will feature Baltimore's Ultrafaux, along with national acts like Rhythm Future Quartet, Mary Alouette and the Crew and Stephane Wrembel, across two nights at Creative Alliance. Thanks to Gypsy jazz festivals and online communities, rising acts like these have found audiences across the country increasingly hungry for the subgenre's intricate guitar solos and natural toe-tapping swing, even as acts put their own spin on the sound.

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The All Good Music Festival -- the multi-day, jam-band event that began in Prince George's County in 1997 and most recently relocated Summit Point, W.V. -- will no longer take place, organizers announced online today.

Josh Kohn, Creative Alliance's performance director, said he had noticed a recent trend of young players on the East Coast interested in Gypsy jazz. (It's also called hot club jazz and its French-inspired name, manouche jazz. While the general term "Gypsy" has become controversial over the years, its use in "Gypsy jazz" is widely accepted given Reinhardt's Romani background, said Rhythm Future Quartet's Jason Anick.) Kohn was intrigued by acts like Ultrafaux, who were using Gypsy jazz as a springboard to create fresh takes on the sound, so Kohn reached out to Harris about putting together a festival.

"It's been a while, but all of a sudden there's this new interest in this form, and you're seeing new bands pop up all around the country," Kohn said. "We looked to create two nights that took the sound or form in different directions, while staying true to the core elements."

For Harris, guitarist Sami Arefin and upright bassist Eddie Hrybyk, Ultrafaux is an opportunity to create original compositions by infusing Gypsy jazz — which is known for its swinging grooves and aggressive picking technique — with other styles of guitar playing. (For a Gypsy-jazz introduction, try Reinhardt's arguably most famous standard, "Minor Swing." Its hypnotic, upbeat guitar picking was featured on the soundtracks of the films "The Matrix" and "Chocolat." Note how the percussive playing of the rhythm guitar stands in for the lack of a drummer, which is a Gypsy jazz trademark.)

These influences are not surprising once you learn the guitarists' backgrounds. Harris and Arefin — who began playing together soon after the former unexpectedly filled in for the latter at an An die Musik show in 2012 — learned the basics of guitar soloing as heavy-metal fans. While metal typically distorts and amplifies its instruments and Gypsy jazz uses acoustic guitars, both require precise finger placement and nimble fretwork.

"A lot of people were like, 'Ha ha, you played metal and that was some silly thing you did,'" Arefin, 24, of Mount Vernon, said. "But as a guitar player, it was very useful. I practiced my scales. I practiced my arpeggios. I would practice for five hours at a time."

For future guitarists in need of a foundation, Harris recommends Reinhardt's music.

"It's the best way to learn the guitar," Harris said. "There's certain things that are just difficult about the guitar, and Django simplified that. Not that they're simple to do, but they're very fundamental to the instrument."

Since forming, Ultrafaux has released a 2014 self-titled debut and the follow-up, last June's "Deuxième," The band has played Creative Alliance and Germano's Piattini, but admits Baltimore is still behind New York and Los Angeles when it comes to having established Gypsy jazz scenes.

The biggest obstacle, Harris said, is making sure fans know the performances exist.

"I'll go flier the farmers' markets about one of our shows, and so many people don't know that it's happening, and they're really pleased when they see [we] play Django Reinhardt-style music," Harris said. "So many people love that music, but don't necessarily go out to the restaurants and bars and jazz places."

Michael Joseph Harris (right) and Sam Arefin, two Gypsy jazz guitarists and members of the Baltimore band Ultrafaux. Not pictured: Bassist Eddie Hrybyk.
Michael Joseph Harris (right) and Sam Arefin, two Gypsy jazz guitarists and members of the Baltimore band Ultrafaux. Not pictured: Bassist Eddie Hrybyk.(Lloyd Fox / Baltimore)

The hope is an event like the Django Jazz Fest will continue to raise awareness of the subgenre. (This weekend is the inaugural event, and the hope is it will become annual.) In the process, the festival will showcase players from different parts of the country. Alouette is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., the French-born Wrembel calls New Jersey home, and Rhythm Future Quartet, based in Boston for years, recently relocated to New Hampshire.

Anick, Rhythm Future Quartet's violinist and bandleader, said the band has played together for 21/2, but "it started to pick up a lot more in the past year." More fans of Gypsy jazz are finding acts like his and Ultrafaux, Anick said, because of YouTube live videos and the establishment of festivals like this weekend's.

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"There are a number of [Gypsy jazz] festivals around the U.S., and what Michael is doing is emulating that spirit and bringing it to Baltimore," Anick, 30, said.

Anick and Ultrafaux's members emphasize the importance of experiencing Gypsy jazz live. To Anick, the music's appeal transcends genres.

"It's a music that really resonates across the board with a lot of people. It's not just for jazz fans or guitar players or violinists," Anick said. "It really touches the soul of people."

For artists performing more popular forms of music, the goals are often outward — what accomplishments can be achieved, where this music can literally take us, how many records can be sold.

On May 14, celebrated Canadian singer/songwriter Grimes, British alt-rockers The 1975 and electropop singer/songwriter Halsey will headline this year's Sweetlife Festival, now in its seventh year, at Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Columbia venue announced in a news release.

Ultrafaux is not immune to this thinking (they want to eventually play live in countries like Ireland and England), but Arefin says his goals are based more on self-improvement.

"With Gypsy jazz, really for the musicians, it's a bit more introspective," Arefin said. "When I think goals, it's improving as a musician, getting better as a group — meshing together, playing together better. Taking our expressivity to the highest form possible."

It's an attitude that seems in line with the humble origins of Reinhardt's style decades ago. Still, Harris is confident that getting the word out, via performances and events, will lead to more listeners, and by extension, help carry Reinhardt's legacy into the future. The live performance, he said, captures the sound and feeling like no other setting can.

"You really play with raw facility when you're in a comfortable situation, playing with an audience and adrenaline is going and everything is great. To bring that to the studio is difficult, so really, the best shows are when we all feel like we're playing at our best and the swing is a really strong feel," Harris said. "This is social music in its roots."

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