Transcribe a solo by Django Reinhardt is not easy, and the approach for me took place on different levels.
There is the level of pure musicality.
Django, far away from the United States where jazz was born and developed, without having him around significant exponents of the genre, recreated from scratch sounds, phrasing, harmonic rules of jazz; he recreated that music by ear, without knowing anything of the theory: it is known that he used to dictate the arrangements to his group verbally, playing on the guitar lines that the musicians would have to imitate.
This sensitivity arises from listening to a few recordings (had heard Louis Armstrong and wept with emotion) and by the fact that already the manouche musicians were using improvisation.
Then there is the level of superb instrumental technique.
In those years, without modern techniques of digital recording, he recorded everything without tricks and fixes. With this thought in mind is terrifying listen to the rattle of notes played by Django without an error.
The third level is that of his disability.
They had left – as you know – only two fingers on his right hand, index and middle, plus a stump that joined ring and little fingers bent on themselves that used for slides and to complete the voicing of some chords.
With these tools he was playing with lightness and elegance things that it is difficult to re-run with four fingers.
So transcribing his solo means, now that we have footage of him playing, try to put yourself in his shoes reconstructing the movements on the fretboard: phrases that are created to be executed in that strange way, two fingers at a time flying by one fret to another.
And if in some passages is obviously useless to try to replicate that movements, keep them in mind gives the idea of its size as a musician.
Here is the solo transcription of one of his many recordings of Nuages, one of his songs.
It was 1946, the war had just ended and Django and Stephane Grappelli reunited themselves again in London, where the violinist had fled during the war, while Dijango had remained in France, more unique than rare tolerated gypsy artist, indeed acclaimed by the regime Nazi.
Django has returned from his American adventure with Duke Ellington and wanted to become a European reference point for jazz, from which a number of Londoners recordings with local musicians.
In this solo his phrases are rich in strong vibrato and continuous arpeggios.
He often uses on dominant seventh chords to overlap diminished seventh and halfdiminished chords up a major third, to obtain minor ninth and ninth chords (eg on D7 he plays F#dim7 to get D7b9 or F#m7b5 to get D9).
Also he plays a minor chord arpeggio up a tone on the seventh dominant chord to sound a thirteenth chord (eg: Bm over A7).
But there are also many other interesting passages in this solo.
For example the start, with a long phrase with artificial harmonics, obtained fingering normally the note and pinching it with the right hand twelve frets up: he hold the pick between the average and the palm, while the index touch the string over the fret and thumb plucks.
Elsewhere will meet very rapid chromatic glissando slides: these are portions of “roll“, the technique invented by Django to run fast chromatic scales with a single finger to a string overcoming his disability, in which the left hand plays a slide at a controlled speed while the right, perfectly synchronized, performs a picking on each fret.
At the end of the solo, on bar 25, we find some diminished triadsthat Django performs with a particular fingering, highlighted in the transcription, which allows him to perform the third note with the stump of his left hand; and is genuinely moving to play that notes thinking that instead of the third finger he used what was left of his hand destroyed by fire when he was young.
The phrasing of the solo looks stylish, lightweight, and also relaxed delayed on time,
It remains impressive to observe how the song starts at 110 bpm and the speed remains unchanged until the end, despite all the “metronomes” used today in the recording studio, and this also thanks to the precision of the “pumps”, the rhythm section that marks the quarters.