Django à la Crèole

The Californian clarinettist Evan Christopher transports an audience to the streets of New Orleans

With its energy, swagger and adventurous improvisation, jazz music should be a youthful genre – and yet it seems not so in Belfast. Californian clarinettist Evan Christopher is performing at the Black Box, but looking around at tonight’s sea of bobbing silver heads, it’s clear his Belfast fanbase doesn’t contain too many ‘hip cats’.

Taking to the stage a half hour later than billed, Christopher’s fans have worked themselves into a silent state of sobriety. Joking about how quiet it sounds from backstage, Christopher tells how the band thought no-one had turned up to see them. The audience ripples in amusement, indicating a pulse is present and thankfully, livening up.

The exceptionally talented clarinettist both leads and supports the virtuoso playing of Dave Blenthorn on lead guitar, Dave Kelbie on rhythm guitar and Sebastian Giradot on bass. Their music, Django à la Crèole, is an infectious fusion of New Orleans rhythms and Gypsy Swing, a style that developed when Django Reinhardt met Duke Ellington. The rhythms of the Caribbean meld with Romani energy to create a delicious, life-affirming kind of music.

Starting off as a mellow stroll, the session strays dangerously close to the dreaded ‘easy listening’, but is soon cast aside to soar into syncopated Creole rhythms, transporting the audience straight to the streets of New Orleans. This is music for dancing, but there is no movement from the audience. Impossible to resist, my leg starts to swing. For all his flawless skills, Christopher is also very accessible.

Talking passionately about the origin of the style and the talent that drove its development, he takes us all right back to those who taught some of New Orleans’ earliest and finest jazz clarinettists. It’s specialist knowledge, but the genuine warmth of Christopher’s enthusiasm makes it a fascinating and absorbing lesson.

Christopher and his group continue to play a mix of jazz standards, themes and Django originals with such passion it’s clear they live and breathe jazz, the joy palpable as they play. Mouths gape at the virtuosity on display, a clear sign of a world-class performance.

Christopher’s second visit to Belfast ends receiving the kind of applause it deserves – rapturous. Whatever your age, another performance from the Californian clarinettist would be unmissable.