New Jersey–based jazz manouche (gypsy jazz) virtuoso Stephane Wrembel is no stranger to wearing many hats. A guitarist, a composer, a teacher, and maybe more than anything else, Stephane is a modern day torchbearer for gypsy jazz across the United States.
But long before composing “Bistro Fada” — the theme song for Woody Allen's 2011 film Midnight in Paris — and long before stepping on stage at the 2012 Academy Awards, Wrembel was just a kid who enjoyed playing Pink Floyd and The Police on his guitar.
Sandwiched between performing at New York City's historic Carnegie Hall and curating the 13th edition of the Django a Gogo workshop in his adopted hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey, Reverb sat down with Wrembel for an up–close look at what makes the guitarist tick.
Stephane Wrembel on Growing Up in France
“I was born in Fontainebleau. I started with classical piano when I was four, with a grandmaster of piano we'll call Mademoiselle Lecomte. She was an accompanist and friends with Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger — that whole crew,” said Wrembel.
“I got very fortunate at a very young age to be in the presence of such masters. Sometimes I still see one of my teachers when I go back to France, and nothing has changed. I will sit down next to her like I'm five years old and watch her play.”
During his teenage years, Wrembel said he felt his focus shift away from the piano and toward the guitar, thanks to some familiar culprits.
“When I was 15, I started playing the guitar. I wanted to play Pink Floyd, which was my favorite band, and Led Zeppelin, the Police — that stuff. Have you met Roger Waters? He's a cool guy.”
(“I'm working on it,” was the only response I could muster to that question, before briefly breaking away from the interview to discuss Waters' 2010 Wall tour.)
I felt like I was on a mission. I was watching the other guys and I wanted to learn it, I wanted to spread it."
Wrembel's observations about how and why he discovered Reinhardt's music were especially poignant.
“When I was 18 or 19, I went to study jazz out of high school. I wanted to study music. I turned to Django because I'm from Fontainebleau and that's where Django is from. I had kind of heard him before. It was a thing you knew because he's from there, but you didn't pay attention. But then I started playing jazz and I paid attention, and I was like, 'Wait a minute, wow, what is that?'”
Paying attention to Reinhardt's technique more and more — from the “rest stroke” to the minor 6, minor 7, dominant and diminished chord voicings that dominate jazz manouche as a whole – Wrembel said he immersed himself within the music and the culture.
“I went to the Django festival in Samois, which is north of Fontainebleau, and I had a moment where I knew something must be done around Django. At the time, I was a huge fan of Al Di Meola's Friday Night in San Francisco.
“But when I started to play, there was Stochelo Rosenberg and Angelo Debarre, that's about it. Outside of Samois, there were barely any jams. But I felt like I was on a mission. I was watching the other guys and I wanted to learn it, I wanted to spread it.”
Stephane Wrembel on Moving to the United States
Characteristic of our interview and subsequent conversations, Wrembel's remarks about the “how” of his journey toward becoming one of the top manouche jazz guitarists in the world remained much shorter and more concise than the “why.” He effortlessly breezed through milestones and accomplishments in his life with a sense of humility that directly reflects his own goals as a musician.
“I studied with the gypsies for many years before moving [to the US] when I was 26 to study at Berklee and all that. [Then] I moved to New York, and only then started composing and doing my thing.”
For Wrembel, doing his “thing” has meant taking on many different projects. He has composed music for Woody Allen films, performed at the 2012 Academy Awards, and headlined Carnegie Hall alongside the aforementioned Rosenberg and Di Meola (among others) as part of Django a Gogo.
“I spent a lot of time in New York just growing the band and composing, trying to create new things. I went out on the road more and more, and then there was the Oscars and all that stuff. And then I simply felt like it was time for me to put on the show I always dreamed about at Carnegie Hall,” he said.
Referring to the March 3 Carnegie Hall concert, smack in the middle of Wrembel's 13th annual Django–centric workshop, Wrembel said it was his goal to bring different worlds together as one.
“I wanted to bridge those two worlds — Friday Night in San Francisco and 'Mediterranean Sundance' along with Stochelo Rosenberg and the gypsy world. I wanted to create the best guitar show this year.
"Playing 'Mediterranean Sundance' with Al and Stochelo at Carnegie Hall — that's a pretty good realization of a dream. And Stochelo, he's a grandmaster of the guitar. He played Carnegie Hall something like 20 years ago. He's before us. He's the grandmaster of Django's music.”
Stephane Wrembel on Django Reinhardt's Influence
Speaking about Reinhardt — the heart and soul of gypsy jazz — Wrembel stressed the importance of paying respect to the forefather of the style when playing manouche jazz standards.
My goal is to take the listener into their own imagination. I don't play music for musicians. I don't play hoping that musicians are looking at it, taking notes on what I do."
“When I play Django, I want to do it properly. We [the Stephane Wrembel Trio] aren't a Django cover band. We don't play Django covers, that's not what we do. When we play Django, it's a tribute to a master. I want it to be super high quality and authentic,” he said, adding that Django a Gogo's teaching staff was handpicked due in part to each musician's dedication to preserving the sound and feel of gypsy jazz.
“I write with all the techniques I have. It doesn't have to sound like Django, but you can still feel those things, along with some Pink Floyd stuff, some Indian stuff, some classical. You can feel everything, but it doesn't matter. It's not about that,” he said.
Instead, Wrembel said that for him, it's about the story that's being told.
“My goal is to take the listener into their own imagination. I don't play music for musicians. I don't play hoping that musicians are looking at it, taking notes on what I do. I hope the listener, when they sit and listen, go into a dream. That they can let go of themselves and their problems and travel with us.”
Stephane Wrembel on Gear and Technique
“Technique” is a word that's burned into the minds of guitarists across the globe. But to Wrembel, it's nothing more than a part of his vocabulary. The same goes for his gear. Wrembel said he keeps it simple. A guitar, a pick, and that's about it.
“Cedar top. That's about all I know. I also have a spruce top. I cannot explain the tonal variations between them. The spruce top is a little bit more aggressive. The cedar is a little bit more mellow. The pick I use is a Wegen. A smaller one,” he said, referring to the Holland–based jazz manouche (and bluegrass) specific handmade guitar pick company.
“Technique is like what comes from the ground, from the earth. It's hard work. It's like planting seeds in a field, and working on it so it can grow. That's the technical work — the lines and the scales, that sort of stuff."
He continues, "But when you're planting things, you have other factors. You have the moon, you have the sun, you have the wind, water and all that. Your control comes from that. That control is music. Whether it's playing Django's solos, composing, whatever it is.”
As evidenced from Django a Gogo, as well as testaments from his own students, Wrembel's teaching technique backs this philosophy up entirely.
A musician passionate enough about teaching to hold lessons less than twelve hours after leaving the stage at Carnegie Hall, Wrembel stressed to students the importance of honing a musical vocabulary that isn't built on mechanics. Instead, he teaches students to use their ears as the ultimate guide.
The technique is only a tool. It's all just vocabulary. And it's not about how much vocabulary you can have. You can have a dictionary and have nothing to say."
“I'm surprised that a lot of people practice scales. They look at chords and try to play over chords, but they never really play music. They don't learn from the music, they learn from mechanical stuff. They can put scales of chords, but they don't learn melody or how to develop a sense of melody. That is [learned] through transcribing, through learning other people's solos, playing compositions. It's crucial,” said Wrembel.
In the end, Wrembel said that he believes what matters most as a musician is simple: having something to say.
“The technique is only a tool. The study of different types of music, they help carve out what I want. It's all just vocabulary. And it's not about how much vocabulary you can have. You can have a dictionary and still have nothing to say."
“Something to say is what matters the most. But if you don't have enough vocabulary and control of grammar, what you have to say might not come across. So you need both. You need something to say and you need the tools to make it come across. What do you have to say?”