Django Reinhardt only had three fingers on his left hand. The other two were burned off in a fire. Still, the legendary musician/composer—born in 1910 Belgium and who died suddenly of a stroke in 1953 France at the age of 43—was the first great jazz cat to come out of Europe and among the very first guitarists to incorporate his instrument as a jazz lead. You could argue he was THE first but, in America, Eddie Lang was already pioneering single-note jazz guitar soloing in the 1920s bands of Paul Whiteman and Bing Crosby. Still, he’s among that rare breed of innovative musical revolutionaries—like how Bill Monroe invented bluegrass—to invent his own genre.
They call it Gypsy Jazz.
The No. 1 exponent of Gypsy Jazz today is the incredibly talented Stephane Wrembel. Born and raised in France, a New Yorker for the last 17 years, guitarist/composer/bandleader/producer/arranger Wrembel started out as a teenager learning David Gilmour riffs from his Pink Floyd albums. He already had classical piano training but all bets were off when he first heard the Quintette du Hot Club de France with Django and violinist Stephane Grappelli. Les Paul once said of Django, “he was the greatest guitarist in my mind. I’d do anything to play as great as he did.”
In 2004, Wrembel started his wildly successful Django A Go Go Festival. It is now in its 16 year.
In 2011, Wrembel wrote “Bistro Fada,” a waltz-swing that Woody Allen used as the theme song for his Oscar-winning Midnight In Paris.
In 2017, for his eighth album, Wrembel recorded The Django Experiment on his own Water Is Life label. Four albums later, The Django Experiment Volume #5 is one of the first great jazz albums of 2020. Recorded in Scranton Pennsylvania with his world-class quartet of guitarist Thor Jensen, bassist Ari Folman Cohen and drummer Nick Anderson, it also features such guests as saxophonist/clarinetist Nick Driscoll and violinist Daisy Castro. For this fifth installment, Wrembel experiments by adding some Fats Waller (“Honeysuckle Rose”/“I’m Confessin’ That I Love You”) and Duke Ellington (“Caravan”) to the mix.
Wrembel was nice enough, in the midst of preparing for this year’s fest, to answer five questions via email with the proviso of “feel free to correct my English!”
GM: Why is Django Reinhardt so revered and still listened to today?
Stephane Wrembel: Django is the father of all modern guitar. He has a foot in classical music, but also a momentum toward [the future]. He developed all the main guitar techniques. He is to guitar what Bach is to keyboard.
GM: What it is that you add to the mix?
Wrembel: At times I pay tribute to the master. This is my foot anchored in the tradition. But I also like to compose for movies and for my band. My music is not a copy of Django. I do not consider my band a Django cover band. I just respect the tradition, so sometimes that’s what I express.
GM: How much did Stephane Grappelli add to Django’s music and legacy?
Wrembel: He was a good complement to Django’s playing. He had a great swing, a great sound, and he was the perfect man for Django’s band.”
GM: Do you know of any other guitarist today who takes the music of their muse like you and modernizes it so much? Do you even consider what you do modernizing at all?
Wrembel: [laughs] I do not believe in modernity! I don’t think that hiphop, for instance, is more modern than [Italian composer] Carlo Gesualdo [1566-1613]. I believe in the eternal rules of harmony and rhythm. Besides Django, I love Frank Zappa, David Gilmour, Ralph Towner, Mark Knopfler, Paco de Lucia...I love all music. To be perfectly honest, though, what I listen to the most is classical solo piano!
GM: What’s the difference between your wonderful albums and what you do onstage?
Wrembel: Although we try to be as live as possible on the albums, there is always another step that cannot be captured: sound and people. On the physical aspect of sound, a microphone, a room, a mix, will always affect the sound in a way a live show doesn’t. On a more esoteric level, in concert, we are a group of humans with the crowd, we function as a unit. We start the concert, but once in it, there is no separation between the band and the listeners. We are one. That, you cannot capture on record.