To call Jean Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt the greatest European jazz musician is to do a disservice to his music (which transcended national boundaries), his playing (which helped turn the guitar into a lead instrument) and his influence (on Charlie Christian, Les Paul and B.B. King, among truly countless other greats). As his sometime accompanist Duke Ellington might have put it, Reinhardt was beyond category and beyond compare.
The guitarist overcame every obstacle to secure a place in the canon: Born in Belgium in 1910, Reinhardt was raised in a gypsy camp on the outskirts of Paris; he never learned to read or write. While still in his teens, Reinhardt survived a fire, which limited his use of his fretting hand to the thumb, index and middle fingers. And yet he was the most lyrical of guitarists, and on his greatest recordings — with Stephane Grappelli and the incomparable Hot Club quintet — his playing was as effortless as it was inventive. Made just a few years before Reinhardt's death at the age of 43, these recordings mark the last of Reinhardt and Grapelli's many collaborations.
Recorded while Reinhardt's group (which now consisted of himself, Grapelli and an Italian rhythm section) was performing at Rome's Rupe Tarpea nightclub, the set's first disc contains deeply personal takes on standards by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Yip Harburg and Fats Waller, and striking new variations on original compositions like "Minor Blues," "Minor Swing," "Swing '39" and "Daphne." Never before had a star in decline given off such warmth and light.