A young talent with an old soul

Gypsy jazz violinist Ranger Sciacca will be joined by The Re-Arrangers, including his guitarist father Michael and Jherek and Korum Bischoff on bass and drums, in a CD release party this Saturday at Island Music Guild Hall. - Photo courtesy of Ranger Sciacca
Gypsy jazz violinist Ranger Sciacca will be joined by The Re-Arrangers, including his guitarist father Michael and Jherek and Korum Bischoff on bass and drums, in a CD release party this Saturday at Island Music Guild Hall.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Ranger Sciacca

Violinist Ranger Sciacca finds his inspiration in 1930s ‘gypsy jazz.'

For many aficionados, jazz guitar begins and ends with a single name: Django.

So great was the shadow cast by the European gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt that his surname became superfluous, the brilliance of his oeuvre reduced to a moniker as singular as Segovia for the classical canon and Jimi for rock and roll.

Less known but essential to Django’s achievements was musical partner Stephane Grappelli, the violinist whose nimble work with the bow helped define the “gypsy jazz” of the 1930s.

In that period, Ranger Sciacca find his inspiration.

“(Gypsy jazz) has a dark energy, and that’s what really appeals to me about it,” the 19-year-old island violinist said.

Sciacca will celebrate the release of his debut CD, “Gypsy Moon,” a collection of standards and original numbers in the hot jazz tradition, at 7 p.m. May 27 at the Island Music Guild Hall in Rolling Bay. He will be backed by “The Re-Arrangers,” an ensemble that includes his guitarist father Michael and the ubiquitous Bischoff brothers, Jherek on upright bass and Korum on drums.

The Django/Grappelli duo came together in 1934 and became a fixture in continental “hot jazz” clubs until the dawn of World War II. The union produced such seminal recordings as “Nuages,” “Daphne” and “Souvenirs,” still considered today as the masterworks of the form.

Django eventually toured America with Duke Ellington, proving that his musical vision extended beyond the continent.

After the guitarist’s death in 1953, violinist Grappelli charted a long and prolific career of his own, contributing to hundreds of jazz recordings until his passing in 1997.

Among Sciacca’s favorite recordings is a bootleg live CD of a Grappelli performance from his later years.

“They say that as he got older, he was always amazing, but some nights he wasn’t really on and some nights he was on,” he said. “That night, he was on.”

Sciacca comes from a musical family – his mother Barbara Zimmer plays violin and guitar, and his father performs with local ensembles on accordion and mandolin – and took up the violin with a friend at age 5. His pal quit the instrument a few months later, but Sciacca continued his studies in the Suzuki program into his teenage years.

He enjoyed the classical canon but also found it somewhat constricting, feeling the pull toward improvisation.

“The classical thing was great, and I did get great training,” he said, “but I did want to do something not just the way it’s written down.”

For five years, Sciacca’s family split its time between Bainbridge and New York. He began studying classical improv under the tutelage of Alice Kanack and in the Big Apple, and folk and bluegrass fiddle with Island Music Guild’s Stuart Williams.

Home-schooling and the Bainbridge Island School District’s Contract Studies program allowed Sciacca to better integrate music into his education. But he eschewed the school ensembles, where string sections offered little opportunity for individual expression.

He found his muse when his father gave him a compilation CD called “Violin Jazz,” highlighting soaring talents in a genre with which Sciacca’s instrument is no longer widely associated.

Jazz violin peaked in popularity in the 1930s and early ‘40s, as Grappelli and other players held center stage as soloists. But the advent of the Big Band era put Glenn Miller’s trombone and Benny Goodman’s clarinet in the spotlight, to be replaced in turn by John McLaughlin’s guitar and Miles Davis’ trumpet as jazz went in new, more experimental directions still.

Sciacca found that few around him appreciated his draw to the jazz arrangements of an earlier age.

“People would say, ‘that’s really weird – jazz violin,’” he said. “I thought they were just out of touch with what was going on.”

But he also found kindred spirits close at hand. Last summer, just before departing for his first year at Whitman College, Sciacca gathered his small ensemble at a now-defunct Bainbridge studio.

The sessions yielded seven classical jazz numbers, a like number of Sciacca originals, and an idiosyncratic arrangement of the Ventures’ surf standard “Walk Don’t Run.”

In a nod to the medium of Grappelli’s day – vinyl – the CD face is black, inscribed with a spiraling groove.

The disc will let Sciacca pitch his talents to concert promoters and radio, and he hopes to land a gig at this year’s Bumbershoot festival.

He’ll also be traveling to a hot jazz festival in Europe this summer, further absorbing the gypsy groove.

If a career in music proves elusive, he has his economics studies at Whitman – where he also plays baseball, and is a campus fixture on jazz violin with other musicians – to fall back on.

“The goal is to test it this summer, see if I can make any sort of money that’s sustainable, and see if I like travel,” Sciacca said.

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