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Stephane Wrembel: The Django Experiment I & II

Peter Jurew By

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When guitarist extraordinaire Stephane Wrembel was invited to appear at the 2012 Academy Award to play his composition, "Bistro Fada," the theme song for Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, it represented a high point in the modern history of the genre known as "Gypsy jazz." Inspired by the original Quintette du le Hot Club de France, co-led in the 1930's and '40's by the Sinti-Romani guitar genius Django Reinhardt and his violinist partner, Stephane Grappelli, Gypsy jazz has continued to seep to steadily into the American cultural landscape—there are stringed instrument-based "Hot Clubs" of Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco and numerous other cities playing high-level interpretations of Gypsy jazz to enraptured audiences.

In March, the same month Wrembel's Django A Gogo festival captivated Carnegie Hall—a program reviewed elsewhere on this site —his Water Is Life label released twenty-four tracks on two CDs, The Django Experiment I and The Django Experiment II, both recorded with his regular collaborators, Thor Jensen, Ari Folman- Cohen, Nick Anderson, and Nick Driscoll.

Twenty-five years ago, Wrembel spent his musically formative years in the Gypsy camps near his home in Fontainbleau, France, learning their craft the traditional way. Since then he has been acclaimed one of the masters of the form himself, touring the world and composing and recording his own music. Wrembel's goal in releasing these two recordings of Django and Django-influenced music is to take an inherently conservative genre and stretch it, bend it and explore its possibilities. As he explained, "The Django Experiment is a re-exploration of my roots as a Gypsy jazz guitarist, a tribute to Django Reinhardt, revisited with a new sound and years of integration of new musical information—sort of Django meets NYC meets the world. It is actually extremely traditional and extremely non-traditional at the same time. What's important is the use of colors and sounds over his music that has not been done before."

Each CD contains twelve tracks that are either Reinhardt compositions or the works other guitar-based composers working in the Gypsy jazz idiom, including five Wrembel originals. The Django Experiment I leads off with a teasing little guitar lick that alerts the listener to expect departures from strict tradition, and so the album unfolds. Reinhardt's "Nuages" starts it, the underground anthem of the French Resistance during World War Two making an ideal opener and lead-in to "Gin-Gin," the delightful Reinhardt tune that perfectly evokes a walk along the old streets of Paris. "Bouncin' Around" with its air of mystery and "Dinette" featuring Nick Driscoll on clarinet, could be mistaken for soundtracks from a 1930's black and white film. The moody "Troublant Bolero" offers lovely ensemble playing, led by Wrembel's beautiful touch on guitar and anchored by Nick Anderson's sensitive work on the drums. "Windmills," a Wrembel original, takes us for a sleek guitar-powered ride to the warm and sunny French countryside. "Place de Broukere" is the kind of Reinhardt original that made his Quintette so hot—rapid-fire guitar licks and a swinging rhythm section driving chordal twists and quick-picked turns leaving the listener breathless. Wrembel's "Carnets de Route," is a lovely, bluesy exploration of a slower tempo and jazzier groove than commonly found in the Gypsy genre. Where "Carnet de Route" uses an original composition to support Wrembel's idea for expanding the genre's boundaries, the standard "Djangology" offers an even more remarkable illustration, the familiar tune riding on a swinging rhythm section until guitars solos—including a bass solo—take it into melodic and tempo territory that depart from the expected, much less the traditional, resulting in a refreshed and rejuvenated classic. The set ends with Reinhardt's much-loved "Minor Swing" where, again, the band begins on safe, traditional turf until Wrembel unleashes a torrent of wild guitar imaginings and magically makes what was old sound new again.

The Django Experiment II disk differs stylistically from the first mostly in that it may contain even deeper forays into genre-bending acoustic joy, starting off with Driscoll's post-bop soprano sax and Anderson's drum solo on Reinhardt's "Douce Ambiance," a nine-minute excursion into post-bop Gypsy jazz fusion. "Viper's Dream" and "Valse de Bamboula" bring us back into the canon, the latter another light-hearted waltz that transports the listener to some happier place than Trump world. Wrembel's "Boston" is another demonstration in genre-expansion, a stroll through that old New England town; starting off with a quiet preamble, the tune finding its footing in a sad melody, traverses a series of darker moods before slowly building into an explosive climax of fretted madness, resolving with a riff that wouldn't be out of place if heard at a hard rock concert before finally returning us to the quiet streets of the New England hub. Driscoll's clarinet takes lead on Reinhardt's "Double Scotch," the first of four consecutive tasty Reinhardt specials, including "Tears," "Heavy Artillery," and "Minor Blues," broken up by Wrembel's moody original, "Nanoc." Another Wrembel original, "Film Noir," offers more samples of the guitarist and his associates' ability to transform the Gypsy jazz genre into something absolutely modern while staying true to the fundamental sensibilities of the tradition. The set-closer, Reinhardt's "Anounman," provides more of the same evidence.

After repeated listening to The Django Experiment I and The Django Experiment II— not to mention being privileged to be in the house for the stunning Carnegie Hall performance in early March—an unanswerable question gets lodged in the heart: is there deeper, more moving music to be found anywhere than the sounds of authentic Gypsy jazz, when played by masters of the form who insist on the absolute necessity to take risks, to stretch and bend the "rules," to make it modern? Bravo and merci to Stephane Wrembel for his knowledge, passion and ability to accomplish this in giving us almost two hours of sheer delight.

Track Listing: The Django Experiment I: Nuages; Gin-Gin; Bouncin' Around; Dinette; Troublant Bolero; Windmills; Place de Broukere; Carnets de Route; Djangology; Ma Premiere Guitare; Jacques Prevert; Minor Swing. The Django Experiment II: Douce Ambiance; Viper's Dream; Valse de Bamboula; Boston; Double Scotch; Tears; Nanoc; Heavy Artillery; Minor Blues; Film Noir; Songe d'Automne; Anouman.

Personnel: Stephane Wrembel: guitar; Thor Jensen: guitar; Nick Driscoll: saxophone and clarinet; Ari Folman-Cohen: bass; Nick Anderson: drums.

Title: The Django Experiment I & II | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Self Produced


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