Stephane Wrembel photo by Casey Ryan Vrock
Stephane Wrembel has been described as the greatest living acoustic guitar player alive. But when you speak with him, he seems less interested in talking about himself and more about the mystery of making music. In his native French accent, Wrembel passionately philosophizes about the irrational response we feel when we hear something and why someone likes something and reacts a certain way. Adding that it’s about the chemistry, Wrembel seems transfixed by the notion that we don’t know why.
During the pandemic, Wrembel turned to a project of writing guitar transcriptions of the recordings his ancestral and spiritual mentor, the great French guitarist Django Reinhardt. “I believe Django resonates because there is something universal in him,” Wrembel told us as his tour van was pulling into a new city and he dealt with the more mundane task of grabbing a parking spot. “It’s a bit like when you listen to Bach when everyone loves Bach from all over the world. I spent years listening to all the recordings. I didn’t know how many there were.”
In our conversation, Wrembel discussed his affinity to Reinhardt, his love of teaching, his annual festival, how his songs came to be in film (he won a Grammy for best score for Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris) and why the jazz capital of New Orleans draws at his heartstrings.
AH: You called your recent series of records The Django Experiment. When you think about Django Reinhardt, do you imagine what it must have been like with his combo with Stephane Grappelli and what it must have been like in the 1930’s?
Stephane Wrembel: For me jazz is the archetype, the first archetype you have is New Orleans. That’s the source. Everything else is not jazz. Miles Davis is Miles Davis. John Coltrane is John Coltrane. That’s not jazz. They’re their own thing. Jazz is really that personal thing and very sophisticated and comes from New Orleans was designed for horns and percussion. Django is the guy who showed us how it’s done on guitar. The whole system of jazz as an archetype is done by Django. That’s the root for all modern music. The whole 20th century is based on jazz. That doesn’t mean it sounds like it—it’s rooted in it somehow.
Django is the guy who really showed us how it’s played. There’s something attractive about it because it contains a virtuosity, great complexities in the harmonies but also some fire–like rock music fire. Now we all learn from Django. My goal when I listen to Django is to learn from him. I’m not trying to become Django right because he’s Django and I’m Stephane Wrembel….it’s different things.
AH: When someone describes music as “gypsy jazz,” does that resonate or is it just a label?
SW: I hate it (laughs). This is a corporate thing again. It’s a way to put something general and something symbolic together. There’s no such thing. There is jazz which is a thing that doesn’t belong to anyone–it belongs to everyone, to all humanity. It was born in New Orleans. It was the right people there and it was manifested. It was born. Django tried to play jazz on guitar and he showed us how it works. You learn from him and do your own thing. When I listen to Coltrane or when I listen to Charlie Parker, I don’t hear the same thing at all. Which one is jazz? What are you talking about? What is jazz? The only thing that exists is that primal first moment with a specific structure with specific limitations. It works a certain way and from there it is just a bunch of human beings. If you’re talking about rock and roll, are you talking about Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Metallica? I’m not so sure because it’s completely different. How can you know it’s rock and roll? You can start many things and put a sticker on everything. But the sticker is not reality. Reality is what you learn in an empiric way through your senses. There is no such thing as gypsy jazz because what are you talking about? Gypsies are different groups.
AH: When you started the Django a Go Go Festival almost twenty years ago, did you have teaching in mind or did that come later?
SW: I’ve always loved to teach. I love teaching. It’s my life so I love that. You know teaching is very important. When I teach, I teach the primal archetype. I learn from Django and I love to share that with people so they can learn that as well and become themselves by knowing how it all works. It’s the way things work and it’s also, I must say, way simpler than people think it is. It’s been presented as something very complicated for what is a fairly simple process. I mean don’t get me wrong. What is different is the technical approach of the instrument because you need a lot of time to learn how to move your fingers and develop muscle memory.
It takes time. That you cannot compress. But the amount of information that you need, the way the information is presented….90% of the information we get presented is useless and not only is it useless, but it’s misleading. It’s useless and you waste time and energy and you get lost. All these years I’ve worked on developing not only a system but a way of finding what is the simplest path to music. How does it work really? WIth the help of Django, I know it’s very simple. The difficulty is really in the technique, in the muscle memory. That’s where the most work is. But the rest–learning to listen and all that. It’s a shame to believe that it’s so hard.
AH: What is the festival like for someone who hasn’t been there?
SW: The idea is to bring some of the greatest mentors of the Django style on earth and then we offer a concert series so people can see these great masters play. It’s really hard for me to explain with words….so we have the concert series in Maplewood, New Jersey in my town in an intimate theater–we have 350 people–and then on the last night we do a great show at the Town Hall in New York City so people can be exposed to these great masters coming to the U.S. and see how these guys play guitar. It’s quite amazing and remarkable. It’s really unbelievable how they play guitar. Also for a whole week these guys can learn from each other. We organize a guitar camp, we have classes…everyone can learn and ask questions. I do too. We all learn. We sit down and it’s a place of great exchange. Everyone talks, everyone learns from each other. It’s amazing.
AH: What’s the greatest fulfillment you get out of teaching? What have been some of your experiences?
SW: I’m really happy to see people re-connecting to their nature because music is a natural thing for human beings. It’s not like something weird. It comes completely natural. So when I see someone who wants to learn and connect to that natural thing it’s like ‘ah yeah I can do this, I can do that.’ They see the joy of just doing that simple thing to make music that is a natural human thing.
You know I don’t want to go there but the world is run by corporations and corporations have affected everything. All of the beautiful natural things we are supposed to do, playing music and dancing and all that has been ‘you’re going to be a professional, you’re going to do this, you’re going to do that. It’s overly complicated. It’s a simple gesture, it’s a simple thing. We’re all human beings.
AH: When you compose original music, how does it come about? Do you hear things in your mind and jot the idea down? Do you have a methodology?
SW: There’s no rule. Usually I hear something and I hum it on my phone or I play it and I put it on how do you say dictaphone…how do you say voice recorder …you have a voice recorder on your phone. Usually I put my little ideas on that.
AH: Do you go back to these and revisit them from time to time?
AH: Your music has been in the movies, How did that come about? Were you approached by Woody Allen when he heard you or did you have a record that he put in the film?
SW: FIrst he wanted to use my song “Big Brother” for his film Vicky Cristina Barselona. He liked my music so he put it in his film which was great, And then after, they did Midnight In Paris and said, “Could you compose a song to capture Paris?” So I did that waltz and they loved it. They put it all over the movie and it became the main theme of the movie.
They asked me to compose a thing for a scene in the movie Magic In The Moonlight and then the scene was cut. Lately, they asked me to compose a score for Rifkin’s Magic, his latest movie which I did.
AH: What is it like to have your music in a film? What were your emotions like when you first heard it in Vicky Cristina Barcelona?
SW: I feel a little bit intimidated…I feel a bit shy really. I didn’t know how…it’s kind of amazing really.
AH: When he asked you to do the scene, what were some of the parameters? What guidance did you get? Did you have any discussion on what it should sound like or how it would be used?
SW: You see that is the thing…I know what he needs and he knows what I have. We barely talk, we barely talk. We talk like five minutes and then I send it to him. He puts it in his movies and says, “This I’ll take and this I don’t need. This is good. Done.” It’s very organic chemistry. As I said, I know what he needs and he knows what I have. We don’t need to talk. It just happens. It’s natural.
AH: I used to see him play clarinet in New York at Michael’s pub. Were you a big fan?
SW: I always loved Woody Allen but I never saw him play clarinet.
AH: You have a new project Django New Orleans.
SW: It’s a bit different. We have the strings for the two guitars and violins. We have the rhythm section with the tuba, the drums and the washbone and soprano sax and trumpet. It is amazing. I feel that replacing the bass by the sousaphone, that’s what gives a different flavor to the whole thing. It’s very difficult to play the Django guitar style in the New Orleans although it comes from it. It’s done not only because of the instrumentation, not only because I know what the performers have chosen but also who’s playing. That’s very important. The project can only exist because of the specific members who are a part of it. It’s a very special project and it’s all the fun and fire of New Orleans. To hear Django played in a different way than usual is amazing. It can be a listening band but it can also be a party band. We’re going to try and play venues where people can either sit or dance. New Orleans talks to the part of us that wants to dance, to drink, to have a good time. Surrounded by something of high quality. Having these two worlds is exactly what that band is about. It’s very humane.
AH: What do you mean by humane?
SW: The real human nature which is dance and music and how do you say…;let me get the translator…yeah drunkenness but it’s not that. It’s the part which is very spiritual.
AH: Will you do more film work?
AH: Listening to you speak, I’m surprised that you didn’t end up in New Orleans
SW: If I had known what New Orleans was, perhaps I would have gone there and not Berklee. It might have been my point of entry to the U.S. if I had known what it was. Because this is the source. This is the motherlode. It’s right there, the music and the human experience. There is love there. It puts everyone in a great natural mood. Believe me that’s the reality.
AH: Is there anything else you want to touch on?
SW: Music is life. Music is part of human nature. It doesn’t belong to any corporations. It belongs to us the people and is something we have within. It helps us to connect. We don’t know how. We don’t know what it really is. Tapping into that connection between people….that is what we call love I believe.
For more about Stephane Wrembel: https://www.stephanewrembel.com/
Visit his tour schedule: https://www.stephanewrembel.com/shows and check out his shows coming up soon: Django New Orleans shows in NYC June 9 in NYC at DROM (https://dromnyc.com/event/django-new-orleans-set-2/)
Stephane Wrembel will also be appearing at the Rochester Jazz Festival on Wednesday, June 22nd (https://www.rochesterjazz.com/artists?artist_id=82)
and more shows:
August 18th- Jazz in the Park, Red Bank, NJ
August 24th. -Clark Art Institution. Williamstown, MA
August 25th- Caffe Lena – Saratoga, NY
August -The Knickerbocker- Providence, R.I