Song 362: Django Reinhardt, “La Mer” (1949)

la mer

“La Mer” is credited to guitarist Django Reinhardt, but the recording belongs just as much to violinist Stéphane Grappelli. The two were perfect musical complements; they always sounded like they were dancing.

Reinhardt first is perhaps the most dexterous guitarist of all time, a man capable of playing fast without losing a single thing in translation. He never sounds like he’s showing off, he just sounds like this all comes to him very, very easily. In reality, it only came easily at first; at age 18, six years after mastering the banjo, the third and fourth fingers on his left hand were so badly burned in a fire that they were paralyzed. So he had to learn all over again.

Reinhardt met Grappelli soon after. As part of the Quintette du Hot Club de France (along with three other musicians, including Reinhardt’s brother, also on guitar), the duo made music that was at once simple and breathtakingly complex. Within relatively simple jazz and blues chord structures, the two bobbed and weaved with great strength and agility, playing with such mutual appreciation that they often sound like a single performer.

“La Mer” is my favorite of the Reinhardt-Grappelli songs, because not only do they sound great together, they sound incredible individually. I love the way Reinhardt picks gently one second and thunks heavily the next, as if he’s building something that requires both a screwdriver and a hammer: one tool for fine motor skills, one tool for blunt impact. Then there’s Grappelli, who handles that beautiful melody by French composer Charles Trenet. “La Mer” has been interpreted countless ways (including, famously, by Bobby Darin), but this rendition, so sad, beautiful, and serene, will always be my favorite.

I just realized that I wrote much of the above in the present tense: “plays,” “sounds.” That must be the result of music that sounds, years after its performers’ exits, so alive.