Guitarist Stephane Wrembel Plays Music Inspired By Jazz Great Django Reinhardt
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We have an interview and performance I think you're going to enjoy. The music is inspired by the first celebrated European jazz musician, guitarist Django Reinhardt, who, along with violinist Stephane Grappelli and their Quintette of the Hot Club of France, played infectious swing in the 1930s and '40s. Django is part of the Sinti tribe, a subset of the ethnic minority known as Gypsies that mainly live in Western Europe. As a young man, Django was gravely burned in a caravan fire and almost lost his left hand. He only gained full dexterity in his first and second fingers, yet went on to become one of the most influential guitarists in history.
Django's music has had a real resurgence in the past few decades. In most major American cities, you can find a hot club band based on his. Our guest Stephane Wrembel takes his cues from Django but has a style of his own. He's a French-born guitarist who lives in the U.S. Wrembel has released many albums and composed music for the Woody Allen film "Midnight In Paris." Before the pandemic, our producer Sam Briger invited Wrembel to our studio to play some music. He brought the other two members of his trio, guitarist Thor Jensen and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen. Wrembel had just released a CD, recording all of Django's solo compositions, called "Django L'impressionniste." We'll get to that in a little bit.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Stephane Wrembel, Thor Jensen and Ari Folman-Cohen, welcome to FRESH AIR.
STEPHANE WREMBEL: Thank you. Hello.
ARI FOLMAN-COHEN: Hi. Hello.
THOR JENSEN: Hi. Thanks for having us.
BRIGER: So Django's music has grown in popularity over the last few decades here in the United States. Like, pretty much any major city you go to has, like, a hot club in it, which is modeled after the quintet that Django had with the violinist Stephane Grappelli. But, you know, still, not everyone knows his well-known music. Would you mind playing something that's a little more typical from his catalog? I think you were going to do "Minor Swing." So could you guys play that for us?
WREMBEL: One, two, three, four.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHANE WREMBEL'S "MINOR SWING")
BRIGER: That was great. That was "Minor Swing" played by my guests Stephane Wrembel, Thor Jensen and Ari Folman-Cohen.
So Django Reinhardt was born in Belgium in 1910 but moved to France. He was a Sinti Gypsy. And the Sintis are the Gypsies that moved through Europe and live in Western Europe now. When he was 17, he was in a terrible fire that almost claimed his life. Can you tell us about that?
WREMBEL: So when he was 18, he got caught in a very terrible fire in his trailer...
BRIGER: He was 18?
WREMBEL: Eighteen, yeah. He came home one night. His wife had prepared, like, celluloid flowers for them to sell at the market the next day. And he dropped the candle in the flowers and immediately caught fire. And back then, the trailers were - it's called a roulotte, you know, they were, like, just made of wood.
BRIGER: They were caravans, right?
WREMBEL: Yeah. It immediately caught fire. And he saved his wife and his baby. And he covered himself with a cover on the left hand. And his whole left side got burned. They were fine, but he got burned. They wanted to amputate his left arm at the hospital. His cousins took him out of the hospital and brought him to a different hospital who actually managed to, like, save his arm and his leg. They reburned his burn with some, like, acid or the something like that. They reburn it to make it clean burns.
WREMBEL: And that left him with, like, a left hand that was not 100% functional. So he could use the last two fingers of his hands - the pinky and the ring finger - he could use them to complete a chord, but he could not really use them for soloing.
BRIGER: There was not a lot of mobility in those fingers.
WREMBEL: Not a lot of mobility but enough to play this complex chord that you hear in those improvisations and all. He might have used them in solos a little bit. We're not so sure about that. But for sure, most of it is with two fingers.
BRIGER: Right. There are a lot of colorful stories about Django. Some of them are probably not true. But do you have any favorites that you like to share?
WREMBEL: Oh, some of them are probably really true.
WREMBEL: I like Django taking the plane, for example, being invited by Duke Ellington and taking the plane or, like - like, that with his cigarettes, no luggage, no guitar, nothing. He just took the plane...
BRIGER: (Laughter) He just got on the plane.
WREMBEL: ...And arrive in America, like, expecting to have, like, a guitar and everything. So there's, like, little stories like that, the things he would do. Or when Duke Ellington said, which key's your song? He's like, I don't know. My songs don't have keys. They are my songs.
WREMBEL: So there was, like, a lot of things like that. Like, he was probably living - because he was illiterated. He was painting and playing music, but he didn't know really how to read and write. He learned later on. But he was probably functioning in a world of symbols and, like, surrealist Gypsy symbol or something like that, which is fascinating. I don't know. It's kind of like a world of dreams, almost.
BRIGER: In the Gypsy culture in France and Western Europe, I think it's fair to say he's considered a hero. How important do you think his music is to the culture there?
WREMBEL: For the Sintis...
WREMBEL: ...So the Western Europe Gypsies, like, especially there in France and Germany and Holland, he is God. Django is God. This is it.
GROSS: That's Stephane Wrembel speaking with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. We'll hear more of their interview and more music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHANE WREMBEL'S "IMPROVISATION 5 (11/28/1947 - PARIS)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're listening to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with guitarist Stephane Wrembel in our studio before the coronavirus lockdown. Wrembel brought the two other members of his trio, guitarist Thor Jensen and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen. Wrembel has a new CD of Django Reinhardt's solo compositions. These are more impressionistic pieces that reveal a different side from the swing recordings of the '30s and '40s that Django Reinhardt was best known for.
Let's hear one of those impressionistic pieces, "Improvisation 2." First we'll hear a little of Django's 1938 recording, then we'll hear Wrembel's version from his album "Django L'impressionniste."
(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHANE WREMBEL'S "IMPROVISATION 2: VARIATION NUMBER 1 (09/10/1938 - PARIS)")
BRIGER: That was "Improvisation 2" from my guest Stephane Wrembel's new CD called "Django The Impressionist" (ph). And he's here in the studio. And we have a treat today. We have his trio, which includes Thor Jensen on guitar and Ari Folman-Cohen on bass.
So some of these titles are, like, "Improvisation No. 1" or "Improvisation No. 2," so you would kind of imagine that they were improvised. But some of these songs have been recorded by Django multiple times. Like, "Improvisation No. 2" was recorded three different times. The first was in 1938, and the last time was in 1946. And those versions are almost identical, right?
WREMBEL: Yes, they are.
BRIGER: So what do you make of that? Like, where do you think these came from? Are these things that he originally improvised and then he tried to refine a little bit or...
WREMBEL: I think, like, there is always a gray area between improvisation and composition. Composition is when it's, like, completely static. It's done. We wrote down, like, every single note, and it's composed. But, you know, it's normal in music to have something composed but, like, play around with it, especially a solo thing. In orchestra, it's more complicated, of course. You know, you play in a symphony, you're not going to start improvising your violin part, you know, if you're the third violin.
BRIGER: Right. That's not going to go well.
WREMBEL: No, that's not going to well for sure. But these pieces are definitely not improvised in the sense like, OK, I'm going to sit down and noodle something.
WREMBEL: It's something that is very - they are all very well prepared. These are things that he obviously played a lot probably at home, you know? And they were, like, carefully crafted in his mind.
BRIGER: Why don't we hear one of your compositions that sort of has a lot of influence from Django's music. I think at least I hear that in this song. And this is called "Prometheus." And this is from your 2012 album "Origins."
(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHANE WREMBEL'S "PROMETHEUS")
BRIGER: That was great. That was "Prometheus" composed by my guest Stephane Wrembel, who's here in the studio being accompanied by Thor Jensen on guitar and Ari Folman-Cohen on bass. You were born in Paris, but you grew up in Fontainebleau, which is where Django spent a lot of his time. And as, also, you've said, it's the home of impressionism. Can you tell us a little bit about your family?
WREMBEL: So I grew up in - actually, in Chatelet, near Fontainebleau. Fontainebleau is a forest, actually. It's a forest, and there was a town called Fontainebleau, which is kind of like the city center. And you have all kinds of little villages all around where people leave, you know, and they go to Fontainebleau to work and all of this. It's very funny the way it's set up. So I grew up there until I was 18. Then we moved to Fontainebleau. I have two sisters. And my mother, from a very young age, insisted for us to play the piano, classical. She said music is part of education. That's that. Like mathematics, you learn to read, to write, you learn music. That's it. That's part of education.
BRIGER: When did you start getting into Django Reinhardt? I know you've said his music, if you're in France, it's just kind of in the air. But you didn't really pay much attention to it until you really did.
WREMBEL: So it's a funny thing because we all know Django Reinhardt. Our fathers, everyone was listening to Django. So it's kind of like in the background, but we didn't really care for it. You know, the difference between, like, an old 78 of Django and like the new '80s pop record, it was, like, very drastic back then.
BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah.
WREMBEL: And so, you know, as, like, kids, you know, we were not interested in that at all. But I remember, like, going to have drinks when I was 15, 16, to the pub, and Babik Reinhardt was there, you know, in France.
BRIGER: Which is his son.
WREMBEL: Back then, we could, like, go and have a beer at 16.
BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah. That's Django Reinhardt's son.
WREMBEL: Yeah, Django Reinhardt's son. He was there. Like, Patrick Saussois was there. Like, these people were there. We knew his name. We kind of knew the music from the background. So we were in touch with him, you know? Plus, there was the Django Reinhardt festival every year in - near Fontainebleau in Samois. And so when I was 18 or about 18, when I graduated from high school, one day I talked to my teacher and I said, OK, I would really love to learn some jazz. So he said, why don't we play "Minor Swing" by Django Reinhardt because his guitar, it's good for you. So I said OK. And he showed me, and I was like, wow, that sounds really cool.
So I went to buy, like, that first Django record, and this time I really put it on and listened to it, and it blew my mind. It was "Djangology 49." So Django in Rome, 1949. And his version of "Minor Swing" was exquisite. I've never heard - like, paying attention and being a bit of a better guitar player and musician and grown-up, you know, I suddenly realized that there was some magic in those notes that I've never had before.
BRIGER: Well, Django Reinhardt seems like one of those people that, without him, there's certain kinds of music that wouldn't exist. Like, for instance, without Bill Monroe, you don't have bluegrass. Without Charlie Parker, you don't have bebop. Without Django, you don't have this style of music at all.
WREMBEL: But - yeah, it's beyond that, though, with Django. Django is a weird phenomenon. It's very different because there's no style. Django is, like, Bach. You know, if you're a pop pianist, practice your preludes and fugue. It's going to be good for you. No matter what you...
BRIGER: Right. So anything you play, that's going to be a source.
WREMBEL: Django brought a new understanding of the guitar and new - I hate to say tricks because they're not tricks, but they're, like - you know, these little things - can I show you?
BRIGER: Yeah, sure. Please.
WREMBEL: So things like...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WREMBEL: Those kind of things, you know? Or like...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WREMBEL: Those kind of things. The harmonics.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WREMBEL: Playing like that with the fake harmonics - he did that a lot.
BRIGER: The octaves. He did a lot of octaves.
WREMBEL: And, like, things like open string.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WREMBEL: So he brought out a lot of things like that, a lot of, like, approaches of the guitar sound that we didn't have before.
GROSS: Stephane Wrembel speaking with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHANE WREMBEL'S "IMPROVISATION 3: VARIATION N1")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to the conversation and performance guitarist Stephane Wrembel recorded with our producer Sam Briger before the pandemic. Wrembel came to our studio with two other members of his trio, guitarist Thor Jensen and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen.
BRIGER: I read in an interview that you said that the way you practice and that the way you perform is very different, and it kind of relates to your understanding of energy. Can you describe that?
WREMBEL: So in my experience, the chi - which is a vital energy - according to chi - this is what I read in books. But whatever. I don't even know if it's related or not. But the vital energy that you have is very precious for performance. I think - you have to be drained at the end of a performance, you know? Like, not drained physically, like being in pain playing.
WREMBEL: Not drained like that. But you have to feel drained inside. You have to - like, almost drained spiritually. Like, there is something that came out.
BRIGER: Like, you're emptying yourself sort of in the performance.
WREMBEL: Exactly. It's like a release of the chi. And when I practice, I like to accumulate chi. I like to accumulate vital energy. So I think of the practice as a very mental space to fix problems. It's not a place to have a good time and play. I don't see practice as, like, a playful time. I think of it as, like, a very solving-problem time. And the performance is the opposite. The performance is a complete let-go because I don't want to feel like I'm practicing in a performance.
WREMBEL: When I perform, I want everything to be in place so there is nothing that retains the spirit to flow, you know? There is that thing that flows and that chi, and I don't want it to be stopped by, like, technical problems and all that stuff.
BRIGER: Well, I'd like to end with probably your best-known composition. This is "Bistro Fada," and it was a theme song to Woody Allen's movie "Midnight In Paris." It's a really beautiful waltz. In France, this kind of song is called a musette. Can you tell us a little bit about what musette means and a little bit about the song before you play it?
WREMBEL: So musette is actually a bagpipe from Central France, from Auvergne.
BRIGER: The word musette means bagpipe?
WREMBEL: Yeah, it's a specific kind of bagpipe that they used in Central France. And when they moved to Paris in the 19th century, they brought also their culture - so dances, songs and the musette. So the Italians moved to Paris in the earlier part of the 20th century, and they brought the accordion, and they started hanging with these guys from Central France, and they started playing musette music on the accordion. And most of it is waltzes. And there's also a great culture of waltzes in Paris.
Plus, the accordion is very good for classical music, surprisingly. And the Gypsies were around with the banjo guitars and all, and something was born like that called the musette. So it's very waltz oriented, waltz and accordion and guitar oriented. And actually, Django, when he was 10, became one of the first musette player. That's his culture. That's how he became a performer. So it's very ingrained in his musical culture.
And in 2011, Woody Allen asked me if I could compose a waltz, a musette waltz, that would capture the soul of Paris. So I tried my best. I came up with that waltz. And he liked it. He put it - he said, OK, it fits everywhere I want on the movie, and then that was it.
BRIGER: That's great. There must be a joke about bagpipes, accordions and banjos all playing music together (laughter).
WREMBEL: Yeah, they're probably the same, you know. The back window broken - you'll find two bagpipes.
BRIGER: Well, why don't we hear it? This is "Bistro Fada." And thank you all so much for coming in - Stephane Wrembel, Thor Jensen and Ari Folman-Cohen. Thank you.
FOLMAN-COHEN: Thank you.
WREMBEL: Thanks again.
JENSEN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHANE WREMBEL'S "BISTRO FADA")
GROSS: That's Stephane Wrembel with the two other members of his trio, guitarist Thor Jensen and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen, playing Wrembel's composition "Bistro Fada." Wrembel has two recent albums out called "Django "L'Impressionniste" and "The Django Experiment V." The trio came to our studio before the pandemic and spoke with our producer Sam Briger.
We're proud to say that our new online archive - which collects FRESH AIR interviews dating all the way back to the '70s, when we were a local show - was just nominated for a Webby Award, the Internet's highest honor. On our archive site, you can search by guest, topic and collection. You'll find it at freshairarchive.org. So check it out.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Challoner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHANE WREMBEL'S "BISTRO FADA")
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