Stephane Wrembel: All that Django-jazz at the Kabbaz

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The French guitar wizard and Django Reinhardt specialist, Stephane Wrembel (center), whose infectious playing and stage Gemütlichkeit leave audiences wanting more, is heading West. His upcoming California tour culminates in three nights at Theatre Raymond Kabbaz, where Wrembel brings his signature Django a Go Gofestival. The learning-and-jamming event, which he instituted in New York twenty years ago, has become a magnet for all who love the essence of Reinhardt. That’s what’s expected January 27-30 at the Kabbaz.

Wrembel brings his New York band of guitarist Josh Kaye, bassist Ari Folman-Cohen and drummer Nick Anderson for three nights of different concerts. French guitar virtuosi Raphaël Faÿs, Sébastien Félix, and Laurent Hestin, and locals–guitarist Tommy Davy and violinist Luanne Homzy–spice up the weekend, which includes three master guitar classes (though all levels are welcome), lectures, a raffle for an $850 Django guitar, jam sessions, French food and more.

Classically trained in France, and a graduate of the Berklee Music College, Wrembel is a thoroughly contemporary player. But Reinhardt’s music spoke to him with immediacy when he was a teenager.

With the exception of the trumpet and vocals of Louis Armstrong, the most venerable and beloved of pre-bop jazz styles belongs to Django Reinhardt (1910-1953). The Belgian gypsy guitarist forged an utterly original musical syntax, of harmonic brilliance, technical virtuosity, spontaneous brilliance, and unpredictable improvisation that marked him as the most original instrumental voice to come from Europe. The ground-breaking recordings that Reinhardt made with jazz violin icon Stephane Grappelli, in their Quintet of the Hot Club of France, has inspired successive generations of guitarists to this day.

Reinhardt’s influence has reached far and wide. Aside from leaving his musical thumbprint on virtually every subsequent Gypsy guitarist, Django inspired Les Paul, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, George Benson and Frank Zappa, to name a few. “Everybody heard Django,” Wrembel contends, “and he introduced that tremendous right hand technique. He knew the music of Impressionist composers like Ravel and Debussy; his knowledge of harmony went way past jazz. Django’s harmonies are so beautiful, and his chord shapes are so full of surprises. He made everyone he played with sound better.”

Even if Wrembel’s name is unfamiliar, you may have heard his romantic songs in two Woody Allen movies: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Midnight in Paris (2011). “Bistro Fada,” composed for the latter, has enjoyed over 14 million Spotify hits. “They chose one of my songs for Vicki Christina,” he says, “then asked me to capture the soul of the city for Midnight in Paris. I was so happy to be part of those films. The waltz—which was a big part of Django’s music—was the foundation of Parisian music. It came together in a magical way: Italians brought their accordions and musettes, the Gypsies their guitars, mandolins and folk songs from Eastern Europe.”

Violinist Stephane Grappelli (1908-1997) was the perfect musical partner and counterbalance to Reinhardt. Where Django was an unforeseeable improvisor and sometimes forceful chordal player, Grappelli provided an elegant filigree counterpoint. Grappelli was an occasional touring presence in 1980s and ‘90s SoCal, performing at Royce Hall, the Golden Bear and Hop Singh’s with a guitar and bass in the Hot Club mode. That trio played the pre-bop repertory associated with Reinhardt and Grappelli, but the evenings always concluded with a buoyant rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” The elfin violinist with the floral shirts and enigmatic grin was an irresistible charmer. 

New Orleans jazz is a twin musical passion for Wrembel, who sees no dichotomy with it and the Reinhardt legacy. “I’m trained to search for simplicity,” he points out. “The world is way too complicated already. Many people have elaborate theories about what jazz is, and worse—they’ve constructed elaborate musical systems for playing it. I think it’s an abomination; I see so many people thinking as they’re playing instead of just naturally playing. That doesn’t mean that New Orleans jazz is simple. I’ve studied a lot, and the true geniuses—Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy—established the fundamentals of harmony, and then jazz was born in New Orleans. Louis Armstrong’s music is so sophisticated on so many levels—it’s so danceable, so joyous, with so much creative improvisation, and it swings. All I can say is that, like Django’s genius, it was a miracle.”

photo credit: rob davidson

Kirk Silsbee writes promiscuously about jazz and culture.


Django a Go Go’ with the Stephane Wrembel Band | Theatre Raymond Kabbaz | Jan 27 thru 29

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