Art in Paradise: French Frets

I only caught a few minutes of the Oscars in February, but it was the right few minutes. I’m a devoted fan of Django Reinhardt, and when the strains of his “Minor Swing” came blasting from the set, I realized I was hearing a proper, honest-to-goodness Selmer-style Gypsy jazz guitar. Not just that, but one played with consummate skill.

That immediately narrowed the list of possible players, and I had my suspicions when that player started stomping, in calculated abandon, on the rhythm. It turned out to be the French guitarist Stephane Wrembel. Wrembel is no stranger to these parts, having repeatedly visited Northampton in the early days of the Django in June fest.

As an arts critic, I save up superlatives. As a guitarist, I’m especially sensitive about over-hyping six-string players. For several years, however, I’ve had an unshakeable conviction: Wrembel is the best guitarist I’ve ever seen in concert.

Wrembel is French, a Berklee grad who’s long used the Gypsy stylings of Django Reinhardt as a jumping off point for farflung musical destinations. That genre has more than its share of dazzling fretboard virtuosos, and at first Wrembel seemed like just another virtuoso, though one with interesting ideas about pushing the style into new territory.

His appearances in the earliest iterations of Django in June never failed to impress. But on a warm night at Helen Hills Hills Chapel a few years ago, Wrembel pretty much blew my mind. There’s a level of instrumental mastery that lies beyond virtuosity, and that night, I watched Wrembel inhabit it with a feral intensity. There seemed to be no delay between thought and note, no level of playing his fingers couldn’t deliver with ease; whole runs up the fretboard seemed like effortless motions of a couple of digits.

The key, however, was that those jaw-dropping fireworks weren’t mere fireworks. They added up to point and counterpoint, to call and response, and to building of drama followed by ecstatic release. Wrembel seemed to be channeling something through the wood and wire.

Django in June hasn’t been graced with his presence in recent years, no doubt due in part to the ascending of Wrembel’s star. He provided the theme, “Bistro Fada,” for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which occasioned his appearance at the Oscars.

The Wrembel album on which “Bistro Fada” appears, Origins, hits shelves May 15. No studio effort is likely to capture all the otherworldly energy Wrembel is capable of live, but the album is a wide-ranging and rewarding listen, a summation of his many directions. His bent for world music and love for introspective melodicizing exist alongside tracks that pay more direct homage to Reinhardt, and that spirit of borrowing freely from whatever and wherever inspires him ties the tunes together to delineate a territory all his own. That territory is staked out with original compositions, an unusual (but sorely needed) move in the Gypsy genre.

In the end, the only constant is the choice of instrument. No matter how far afield he wanders, Wrembel almost always brings his Gypsy-style acoustic guitar along for the ride. It’s a guitar with a unique, stinging timbre that he has, like few other players, pushed into unusual sonic places—he’s even brought out a wah-wah pedal in performance. Wrembel is making his own path, and it’s a great ride.

Author: James Heflin

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