EVER HEARD OF DJANGO? by Donny Levit Photography by Julia Maloof Verderosa
Guitarist Stéphane Wrembel will make you a devotee
At first listen, classical piano, Pink Floyd, and gypsy jazz possess vastly different styles and sounds. But for Stéphane Wrembel, this assemblage of seemingly disparate influences has informed his career as a master guitarist.
Wrembel, who grew up in Fontainebleau, France, began studying classical piano at age 4. In his teenage years, his interests shifted to guitar after listening to Pink Floyd. “I was 15, loved guitar, and wanted to learn the style of [Pink Floyd guitarist] David Gilmour,” he recalls.
However, it was the guitar technique of Gypsy-French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953), who became a fixture in Fontainebleau during his later years, that served as a lightning bolt of inspiration for Wrembel.
Wrembel has fashioned his now-adopted home town of Maplewood into a hotspot for the traditions of Django (pronounced “Jango”) Reinhardt. Thanks to Wrembel’s tireless efforts, the Django a Gogo© International Music Festival, one of the world’s most important and influential events celebrating and expanding on Reinhardt’s music, will be presented in Maplewood this fall.
Originally scheduled for May 2020 and postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the performances will now take place on Tuesday, October 6 and Wednesday, October 7, at The Woodland in Maplewood. The event will also feature several jam sessions, which will happen in other Maplewood venues. The festival will conclude on Thursday, October 8, at The Town Hall in New York City.
“Django is the father of modern guitar,” Wrembel explains. “Whether it’s jazz, rock, or any music style, he is the foundation – whether it’s known or not or whether it’s obvious or not. If you dig a little bit, you start seeing that all the great musicians mention Django. They’re all fascinated with him – B.B. King, Frank Zappa, Paul Simon. What Bach is to the keyboard, Django is to the guitar.”
Although he trained in a conservatory, Wrembel discovered Reinhardt’s guitar traditions by befriending musicians from the Sinti (Western Europe Gypsy) settlements surrounding Fontainebleau and other communes outside of Paris. Reinhardt performed in hot clubs in Paris, but he passed his guitar traditions down to his Sinti community. “I started meeting people and I was invited to jam with them. I met people who had a completely different lifestyle than mine, which was an eye opener to me,” says Wrembel, who credits the “gypsy jazz” culture for his love of Reinhardt.
Django Reinhardt’s unique style came out of necessity. A nearly fatal fire badly damaged his ring and pinky fingers. According to Wrembel, Reinhardt’s compensation made for a fascinating playing technique. “Because he could solo mainly with two fingers, Django found shapes that are actually very natural for the guitar that you wouldn’t have even conceived playing,” he says. By transcribing Django with two fingers, you start seeing things you haven’t seen before. And you start realizing that it’s better, easier, and closer to the nature of the instrument. Because of his limitation, he could play sophisticated and fascinating chords.”
Over the years, Wrembel has assembled an accomplished group of musicians to perform and record with him. On October 7, Wrembel’s band will perform selections from his “Django Experiment” project. The band’s most recent recording, The Django Experiment V, was released on January 23 to coincide with the 110th anniversary of Reinhardt’s birthday.
The ensemble features Thor Jensen on guitar, Daisy Castro on violin, Nick Anderson on drums, Ari Folman-Cohen on bass, and Nick Driscoll on clarinet, bass clarinet, and saxophone; it explores an improvisatory approach that evokes new interpretations of Reinhardt’s music, as well as songs by other jazz and gypsy jazz composers. “For us, we do not rehearse,” Wrembel says. “We just play. They have a lot of character and are good people to travel with and to hang out with. These guys are amazing on every level. When I bring a composition, I already have them in mind.”
The second night of the festival is titled “Django New Orleans,” and features Wrembel and Russell Welsh on guitar, Aurora Nealand on saxophone and vocals, David Langlois on washboard, Joe Correia on sousaphone, and Scott Kettner on drums.
Although Reinhardt was originally trained as a classical musician, his style greatly changed when New Orleans jazz came to Paris in the 1920s. Says Wrembel, “Jazz was very hard to hear [in Paris] at the time because no one was playing it there. There was no radio. There were no records. So that’s why it’s good to go back to his roots: classical music and then New Orleans.”
In addition to his festival work, Wrembel has made a name for himself as a film composer. His song “Big Brother” was featured in the 2008 Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Allen then asked Wrembel to work with him again on his 2011 film Midnight in Paris. Wrembel composed the song “Bistro Fada,” which he subsequently performed at the Oscars. Both films won Academy Awards, and a Grammy was bestowed on the soundtrack for Midnight in Paris. “We understand each other,” he says of working with Allen. “He knows what he wants. I send him five things and he keeps three.” Wrembel has also written music for Rifkin’s Festival, Allen’s newest film, which is slated for release in fall 2020.
While Wrembel hopes that the Django A Gogo© Festival will expand to other cities and countries through the world, he loves that he’s able to present this event in his own town. He relocated to Maplewood permanently in 2010, settling less than a mile from The Woodland; his wife, Stefanie, teaches fifth grade at Clinton Elementary School. His 5-year-old son, Henri, attends kindergarten at Tuscan Elementary School while his 3-year-old daughter, Marcelle, is a student at Open Door Nursery School in Millburn.
“Maplewood is extraordinary,” he says. “We have just enough nature. We have just enough people. Good restaurants and coffee shops. The train is right there. We’re just far enough from New York and close enough to New York...the vibe is incredible. Schools are great. There are lots of artists and musicians. It’s kind of like a dream world.”
For tickets, program details, and other information about the Django a Gogo© International Music Festival’s three fall 2020 performances, visit djangoagogo.com.
Donny Levit is a journalist, writer, and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his show Under the Influence on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Twitter @donnyreports and Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio.