Stephane Wrembel Decodes Django-Style Gypsy Jazz

“Django Reinhardt is the only musician I can think of who has festivals dedicated to him all over the world,” says Stephane Wrembel, reveling in the afterglow of Django A Gogo—a combination guitar camp and performance event he produced that culminated with a show at Carnegie Hall on March 3, featuring gypsy master Stochelo Rosenberg and maestro Al Di Meola.
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“Django Reinhardt is the only musician I can think of who has festivals dedicated to him all over the world,” says Stephane Wrembel, reveling in the afterglow of Django A Gogo—a combination guitar camp and performance event he produced that culminated with a show at Carnegie Hall on March 3, featuring gypsy master Stochelo Rosenberg and maestro Al Di Meola. After years of focusing on his own music, Wrembel returned to his roots to record The Django Experiment I and II [Water Is Life] in tribute to the Belgian-born guitar legend, Django Reinhardt.

Wrembel resides in New Jersey, but he originally hails from Paris, and was raised in Fontainebleau, France, where Reinhardt lived (and passed away in 1953). Leading the Quintette du Hot Club de France, Reinhardt was arguably the most prominent guitarist of the late ’30s and early ’40s, and he famously played a Selmer acoustic designed by Mario Maccaferri with a cutaway and an oval soundhole. Wrembel studied classical piano as a young child, and became a devout David Gilmour disciple in his teens before getting bit by the Django bug. He originally learned the gypsy-guitar style by hanging out at countryside campsites with actual gypsies before heading to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he graduated with honors. Wrembel released his debut album in 2002, and came to international prominence in 2011, when he scored and performed what became his signature song, “Bistro Fada,” for Woody Allen’s Oscar-nominated film, Midnight in Paris.

How would you describe the physical difference between playing, say, a Martin steelstring and a Selmer-style acoustic?

Selmer guitars sound less rich, but they have a more cutting sound that’s very good for soloing. They project well, and the plucking-hand technique used in the gypsy style adds to that projection. We use what’s referred to as a “rest stroke,” but it’s different from the rest stroke of a classical player—or a flamenco player such as Paco de Lucia—because the Django-style rest stroke is played with a pick. A classical rest stroke played fingerstyle goes down to up—from the floor towards the ceiling. A picked rest stroke goes from up to down. After you pluck the sixth string, the pick rests on the fifth string, for example.

Rest strokes are very important, because they give a certain percussive aspect to the sound, and that attack is crucial to the gypsy groove. The rule is to essentially play downstrokes until a passage goes fast enough to require alternate picking, but you only alternate on one string. When you move from one string to another, it is done with a downstroke regardless of whether the next string is vertically above or below. The technique also makes you organize notes with your left hand in a certain way, so it affects everything.

Can you share what you know about Django Reinhardt’s infamous hand injury, how it affected his technique, and to what extent you adopt his idiosyncrasies on the fretboard?

He got trapped in his trailer during a fire. It burned some of the tendons on his left arm and hand, so he could not unfold the pinky and ring fingers very well. He could use them to play skinny strings as part of a chord, but for soloing, he had to use his first two fingers, and he found amazing ways around the fretboard. I always transcribe and learn to play Django’s solos as he would, using just the first two fingers. I do it a lot, but not like a dogma.

What does one learn by sticking to the first two-fingers?

I cannot stress enough the importance of rhythm in Django’s playing. I don’t mean rhythm in sense of the groove—which is amazing—but how he organizes his notes, his harmony, and how he builds the whole solo. When you learn it using the first two fingers, you discover beautiful shapes. You see the whole picture, and then you realize that no one has yet caught up with Django.

How would you rate the degree of difficulty to play like Django?

It’s scary hard. It’s crazy. It’s as sophisticated as Bach or Mozart. I look at Django as being the supreme master of the guitar.

What gear did you use to make The Django Experiment I and II?

I have two Holo guitars—one with a spruce top, and one with a cedar top. I’m not sure why I like Holo guitars, other than they feel comfortable and they sound good. I use D’Addario Gypsy Jazz medium-gauge strings. We recorded live in the studio for three and a half days. We set up just like a gig, playing without headphones, and through our amps. I’ve been using AER Compact 60 amps for 15 years. I love the sound with just a bit of reverb, and I appreciate the combination of those amps being light and small, yet deceptively powerful. I use two of them from two different sources—which I’ve found is key to amplifying acoustics.

What sources are those?

One of them is almost always an Ischell transducer affixed to the guitar’s top. It’s handmade in France, and although I feel it’s the best acoustic pickup in the world by far, tabletop-style pickups lack a bit in the low end. They lack the sound of the strings resonating sympathetically, which is like the guitar’s natural reverb. Sometimes, I’ll complement the Ischell’s attack with the resonance of an Audio-Technica lavalier-style microphone clipped onto the soundhole. I’ll set the actual microphone either inside or outside of the soundhole, depending on the situation. I use the Audio-Technica when I want a true acoustic sound, but 90 percent of the time, I’ll augment the Ischell with a Stimer magnetic pickup in the soundhole. The Stimer is a French pickup from the ’40s that Django used. It has a lot of power and bass. It sounds very electric, to the point of distorting a bit. I don’t like too much of that character, but it’s a great addition to the Ischell, and that combination is the sound on my new recordings. The Stimer allows me to add effects. On the albums, I used the equalizer from an L.R. Baggs preamp, and the octave effect from an Electro-Harmonix POG. You can hear that on the solo in “Troublant Bolero.”

Your treatment of that tune is interesting.

I never was too fond of that song, to be honest. There are a lot of chords. But I started liking it when I took the riff from the intro, and rearranged the song in a modal way with a dreamy, airy, Middle Easterntype of groove.

What was the vision behind your version of “Nuages”?

“Nuages” is probably Django Reinhardt’s most famous composition. It’s usually played as a slow ballad, but that can be a bit boring. I wanted to stay true to Django’s first recorded version with the right bounce. I even stuck to his solo the way he played it with two fingers, and without any of my own improvisation. It’s a great solo to learn note for note. When I teach it to students, it blows their minds, because it’s incredibly rich. I decided to follow that track with “Gin Gin,” which is supposedly Django’s first composition.

“Gin Gin” has very nice melody.

Yes, and it’s harder to play than people might think. It’s a real Parisian waltz.

How do you execute the wild intro melody on “Place de Broukere?”

That weird rhythm and melody at the start is what makes that song so special. It’s all done on the E and A strings, starting in the sixth position.

How did you go about treating “Minor Swing” in your own way?

I do “Minor Swing” using three tempos—medium, slow, and fast—to create three different atmospheres.

What are a couple of your personal Django favorites from these sessions?

“Douce Ambiance” is one of my favorites. It has a very recognizable intro. The mood hits you right away when you hear Rick Driscoll’s sax, and then the track is just crazy. I tried to capture some New York voodoo. “Anouman” is one of Django’s most beautiful ballads, so I thought it would make for an interesting, airy ending to the second album.

Can you explain your concept for the Django A Gogo events?

Django A Gogo is different because it is multiformat. The event takes a different shape at a different location each year, depending on if I’m touring or not. This year, I was determined to get the greatest players in the world, and have them participate in a guitar camp for players of all skill levels in my hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey. I wanted to have players from the Django world—such as the grand gypsy master Stochelo Rosenberg—and others, such as Al Di Meola, who is not at all a Django guy. I also invited Larry Keel, who is a killer bluegrass player. He plays Django stuff with an American sound from Virginia. All week long, everyone taught different concepts. I knew that with the right players, and the right repertoire, we’d create something that had never been done before.