Meet the gypsy jazz guitarist Stéphane Wrembel
It was 1993, and 19-year-old Stéphane Wrembel had been playing guitar for four years. He was mainly in rock – Pink Floyd was his passion – but his musical prospects were developing. For the first time, he attended the annual Django Reinhardt festival in Samois-sur-Seine, a village adjoining his hometown of Fontainebleau in France.
“When I went to the Django festival and finally heard the Gypsies play,” he says in his thick but fluent English, “I had a revelation. I knew I was going to focus on Django’s music as an essential part of my learning. It has become the center of everything for me.
Flash-forward 28 years to the present day, and Wrembel, now a resident of Maplewood, is a leading performer of what is often referred to as gypsy jazz. It is a genre that fuses swing with elements of music from the Sinti, a Roma tribe from Western Europe. It evolved in the mid-1930s from the collaboration of Reinhardt on guitar and Stéphane Grappelli on violin. The two recorded and performed with their group, the Quintette du Hot Club de France.
You may never have heard of Wrembel, but you’ve probably heard his music. He wrote the song “Bistro Fada”, for Oscar nominated film by Woody Allen Midnight in Paris (2011). And he played it in the Oscars 2012 show. The film’s soundtrack also won a Grammy (2012) for Best Compilation Soundtrack. for Visual Media.
Allen used a second Wrembel recording, “Big Brother”, in his film Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Wrembel composed all the music for another Allen movie, Rifkin Festival (2020).
Wrembel’s guitar skills are stupendous. It can trigger super-fast melodies and solos or play sensitive, slow passages; everything seems effortless. His game is so authentic that it easily transports you to a Parisian club from the 1930s.
“Stéphane is a great guitarist who carries on Django Reinhardt’s tradition into the modern era,” says Dave Stryker, renowned jazz guitarist and native of New Jersey.
Wrembel primarily plays a Bob Holo steel-string Nouveau model guitar, an instrument similar to Reinhardt’s. It features a smaller than normal, oval rather than round sound hole, and an electric guitar-like tailpiece. “Not too rich. Not too low, not too high, ”is how Wrembel describes the sound of this distinctive type of guitar.
Wrembel deepened Reinhardt’s repertoire and transcribed many of his compositions and solos. He can sound like Django whenever he wants, but his playing style also incorporates touches of flamenco, rock, classical, blues, and other styles.
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Before the pandemic, Wrembel performed about 100 dates a year in the United States and abroad, many with his bands, the Django Experiment and the Stephane Wrembel Band. In January of this year, he released his 10th album, The Django VI experience.
Wrembel hosts the annual Django a Go-Go festival, which brings together contemporary performers of Reinhardt’s music. Last year’s festival was held remotely, but as of now, the 2021 festival is scheduled for June 3-6 at Woodland in Maplewood and Drom in New York City.
The rich cultural heritage of Fontainebleau had a significant influence on the growth of Wrembel. “It looks like Paris, but it’s very small, maybe 20,000 people,” he says. “Debussy composed there, Ravel, all these guys were there. It is a very powerful place for French culture.
Reinhardt settled in Samois-sur-Seine for a few years before dying at 43 in 1953. He quickly became part of the region’s cultural identity. “Django found this place, fell in love with it and established his base there,” Wrembel explains.
In 1993, after Wrembel’s revealing moment at the festival, he was determined to learn to play the guitar in the style of Reinhardt. It was not an easy task. “There was no YouTube in 1993. No method book. There was nothing, ”he recalls.
Through a guitar magazine, he found a Russian mandolin player who knew a bit of gypsy jazz and showed him some basics. After that, Wrembel met and studied in Paris with guitarist Serge Krief, whom he describes as “one of the great masters of the Django style”.
Around the same time, while Wrembel was attending the American School of Modern Music in Paris, a friend told him about a Sinti campsite in a town called Sanois, where music was played every day. “I went to school in the morning in Paris,” he recalls. “Around noon my friend would pick me up and we would go to camp and play until nightfall.
In 2000, Wrembel left France to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I always dreamed of coming to the United States, and I was saving my first plane trip for it. It was almost like a sacred mission, ”he says. “I never backed down. I like this country. I am an American now.
After finishing at Berklee, Wrembel moved to New York to begin his music career. In 2003, he started dating a woman from Maplewood. “I’ve spent my life between Maplewood and New York,” he says. He moved to Maplewood permanently in 2011 and got married a year later. He has two children in the city’s school system and his wife is a teacher there.
“What I love about Maplewood is that most of the time people are very open to music and art,” Wrembel says. “There is a certain life in this village, and also a beauty in the houses and the gardens. The aesthetics of the city, in general, are very pleasant. I love the old Maplewoodians, people who have always been there. These people are cool.
Wrembel embraced New Jersey life. “I love going to the beach,” he says. “I love Ocean Grove… great things are happening there.”
Although the pandemic has entrenched his tour, Wrembel has performed live broadcasts for the past year. His latest, recorded live on April 22, is available on demand on the gigs.live site; he performed the songs from his 2020 album, Django The Impressionist, which consists of his interpretation of 17 of Reinhardt’s solo pieces.
“It took me three years to transcribe them, learn them by heart, explore every nook and cranny, then record them and release an album,” he says.
Wrembel took advantage of the isolation of Covid-19 by learning to play classical guitar. He practices five hours a day, starting at 5 a.m. “I try to be very diligent,” he says. In the afternoons, he works on his Django repertoire and gives private lessons.
“I read a lot of philosophy, I play a lot of music, and that’s what it is now,” he says. “And when it reopens, and it’s good, then we’ll make plans.”
Mike Levine leads a double life as a music journalist and musician. The former editor-in-chief of Electronic musician and On the scene magazines perform in three groups, produce and mix music, and have composed for commercials and television shows.
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