Gypsy Jazz Festival swings into its 11th celebration

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Each weekend seems to bring another jazz festival, the recent Englewood and Hyde Park events leading to yet another on Friday and Saturday nights: the 11th annual Chicago Gypsy Jazz Festival at the Green Mill Jazz Club.

True, Chicago guitarist Alfonso Ponticelli's soiree doesn't have nearly as many dimensions as the Englewood and Hyde Park fests, but it serves a valuable purpose. For like Ponticelli's engagement every Wednesday night at the Green Mill, where he leads his Swing Gitan band, the Gypsy Jazz Festival heightens the profile of this immensely attractive music.

Moreover, the festival consistently brings in national and international performers, illuminating the ever-expanding range of gypsy jazz.

"You don't want to get sucked into that black hole of just playing Django," says Ponticelli, referring to guitarist Django Reinhardt, the patron saint of gypsy jazz. A gypsy guitarist revered for his recordings and performances with violinist Stephane Grappelli and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France in the 1930s, Reinhardt was critical to the early evolution of jazz in Europe, his legacy influencing the music ever since.

So how exactly does Ponticelli – who has devoted his career to gypsy jazz – define the term?

"It's jazz music interpreted by the gypsy, Roma people, like Django Reinhardt," says Ponticelli. "Now we're interpreting that music in America.

"It's a way of attacking and treating the guitar that is very different from what you hear in American jazz. The flamenco guitar, it's a box, and they use it like an acoustic drum with strings. … For me, flamenco is gypsy, and it's the roots of the guitar."

More specifically, gypsy jazz – at least in its classic incarnations – has a pulsing, chugging rhythmic drive and an ebullient, exuberant sense of swing. There's palpable joy in this music, but a streak of melancholy, too.

For, as with early jazz, blues, gospel and related genres, gypsy jazz gives voice to a people who long have suffered under oppression.

"The gypsy music is like the folk music of Europe," says Ponticelli. "It's the music of the people.

"I love the Roma people, the musicians I've made as friends. We know they've been persecuted, and it makes me feel good to see Roma people come to the gigs and they're proud: They say, 'I'm gypsy.'

"Where else do they say (that) out in the open?"

The challenge for anyone playing this music in the 21st century is to keep it fresh while staying true to its essential spirit. Ponticelli tries to do that by penning his own compositions in his own musical vocabulary and encouraging his colleagues to do likewise.

Even when Ponticelli is performing standards of the repertoire, such as Reinhardt's "Minor Swing" and "Nuages," he tends to deliver them with a decidedly contemporary and often robust spirit.

For this year's festival, he's bringing in two guests from Europe. German guitarist Titi Bamberger "sings and plays rhythm guitar – the best rhythm guitar player you'll ever here," says Ponticelli. French guitarist Pierre "Kamlo" Berre, like Ponticelli, builds his repertoire on both standard and original compositions. They'll be joined by Ponticelli, violinist Steve Gibons, cimbalom player Alex Udvary and bassist John Bany.

All of this has been organized by Ponticelli as part of his long-running campaign to champion gypsy jazz. He made significant strides in 2010, the centennial of Reinhardt's birth, leading a major Reinhardt homage at the Pritzker Pavilion in Milllennium Park, as part of the Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series.

So why has Ponticelli given so much to this music?

"It's something that is passionate for me," says Ponticelli, who was introduced to the genre in high school.

At the time, "I couldn't stop listening," he once told me, though he conceded that he initially didn't quite understand what made gypsy jazz swing. A pilgrimage in 1994 to Samois-sur-Seine, France – where an immense Reinhardt festival draws devotees from around the world every year – proved transformative, showing Ponticelli the path toward his musical future.

Reinhardt, who died of a brain hemorrhage at age 43, remains an inspiration to Ponticelli and uncounted others, and the gypsy jazz festival enables Ponticelli to further the cause.

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