French guitarist Stephane Wrembel can almost play faster than ears can listen. Before the brain can really register every precisely filigreed ornamentation, every breathtaking swoop and swerve into unexpected territory, before it has time to involuntarily voice amazement, Wrembel is laying down another beautifully formed and emotionally ripe idea at light speed.
Meanwhile, he’s breathing new life into the rakish repertoire of “jazz manouche,” or traveler jazz. He's taking well-loved and well-worn staples such as “Nuages,” “Douce Ambiance” and “Minor Swing” on short trips to North Africa, Nashville, India and Spain; turning the bebop standard “Night in Tunisia” into a Djangoesque delight, and spicing his acoustic performances with riffs inspired by rock giants Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix.
This weekend, Stephane Wrembel’s The Django Experiment, featuring Simon Planting on bass (with rhythm guitarist Teddy G and percussionist Richard Lee), headlines the 2008 New Mexico Django Fest. Produced by Albuquerque guitarist John Sandlin of Le Chat Lunatique, the festival takes place at various venues (see box) and offers everything from sit-down concertizing to dance workshops (the latter in conjunction with the Albuquerque Lindy Exchange). Featured performers include Le Chat Lunatique, Mango fan Django, Hot Club of Phoenix, Hot Club of Santa Fe, Zoltan Orkestar, Swing from Paris (United Kingdom) and more.
Born in Paris and raised in Fontainebleau, Wrembel began his musical training in a classical manner on piano at the age of 4, and his decidedly unrakish accomplishments—
Wrembel picked up the guitar at age 15 because “I wanted to play ‘Is There Anybody Out There’—Pink Floyd,” he says. “Anyway, I wanted to play everything by Pink Floyd. It’s my favorite band of all time.”
Wrembel attended the American School of Modern Music in Paris, where jazz entered the picture for him. “I didn’t know jazz at all, really. ... I really wanted to study jazz because I knew if I wanted to go further in music, I had to have an understanding of improvisation and jazz. When I went to school, I had to buy some jazz, so I wanted to buy a guitar player playing jazz. So it was—oh, Django Reinhardt, because it was big and he was French.
“I listened to that 1949 version of ‘Minor Swing,’ and they’re like magical notes. I don’t know how to explain,” he says. “It’s like notes that I never heard before, like a way of playing that I never—that was the first time that I really sit down and listen to Django specifically, and I was blown away.”
“I listened to that 1949 version of ‘Minor Swing,’ and they’re like magical notes.”
Inspired by the CD and by the Roma playing at the Django festival in Fontainebleau, Wrembel began teaching himself to play jazz manouche. His studies with Moreno, Angelo Debarre and Serge Krief led to an introduction to Romani musicians, and Wrembel was soon visiting Romani campsites “a few times a week, and spending the day playing,” he says.
A scholarship to Berklee College of Music brought Wrembel to the States, where he studied modern jazz, Indian, African and Middle Eastern music. In his playing and compositions, he’s imported all of these into the jazz manouche style, maintaining contact with the music’s roots while allowing it to branch into new territories.
From Berklee, he headed to New York City, where he still lives, fed by the city’s “jungle lifestyle.” “You gotta survive, man. Somebody’s gonna eat you alive,” he says, laughing.
Wrembel released his first CD—Introducing Stephane Wrembel, featuring classic jazz manouche tunes—shortly after his arrival in the city. Two more have followed since: Barbes-Brooklyn, which presents a number of Wrembel originals, and 2008’s Terre des Hommes, an original suite he describes as “a soundtrack for your imagination.”
“Music is always dressing up the moment," he says. "Terre des Hommes is not too much focused on the notes, but focused on emotions and imagination, visions behind the songs.”
Wrembel sees the musician as “a trigger to emotions and imagination,” and he’ll drop the hammer on you if you’re listening.