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.
When Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk were at the peak of their respective abilities, each put a melancholy stamp on Bing Crosby's sentimental monologue, "I Surrender Dear." But it took Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grappelli — who'd been playing together since 1934 — to transform the song into a tortured, heartbreaking duet. There's nothing quite like it in jazz, or any other music. "It's Only a Paper Moon," "I Got Rhythm" and an improvised take on Tchaikovksy's "Pathetique" symphony are Disc B's other highlights.