Winging the swing

Guitarist Stephane Wrembel brings silky instrumental skills and a rich palette of colors and seasonings to this year’s Felicja Blumental International Music Festival.

Israeli band Swing de Gitanes, with which Wrembel will be guesting (photo credit: RONEN GOLDMAN)
Israeli band Swing de Gitanes, with which Wrembel will be guesting
(photo credit: RONEN GOLDMAN)
Stephane Wrembel sounds like a man on a mission. The extent of his passion, not to mention his expertise, should be apparent when the New York resident and French guitarist joins our very own Swing de Gitanes trio for what promises to be a gypsy jazz tour de force.
The concert will take place on May 17 (8:30 p.m.) as part of this year’s Felicja Blumental International Music Festival, which will take place at the Tel Aviv Museum May 15-20.
Over the years, the festival has made it a habit to take in a wide swath of musical mind-sets and styles, and the 19th edition follows eclectic suit.
The principal emphasis of this year’s event is “Women Creating Art,” and the proceedings kick off with a new documentary about veteran Brazilian singer and painter Annette Celine, who happens to serve as the festival’s artistic director. Over the last half-century Celine has performed all over the world, singing in eight languages at glittering venues such as London’s Wigmore Hall, Salle Gaveau in Paris, and Carnegie Hall in New York.
Other female-led slots include celebrated recorder player Doret Florentin, whose artistic purview takes in various chamber music ensembles, such as Teatro a la Moda, and Jewish and Spanish music outfit Me La Amargates Tú.
Florentin will also appear at the festival with the Mezzo Ensemble, which she founded with singer Assif Am-David in 2008, and which performs various forms of ancient music, including songs and dances from Greece and Spain, in addition to Florentine songs from the 16th century.
Two-guitar and double bass Swing de Gitanes is a popular fixture on the national cultural calendar, but the addition of Wrembel promises to stretch the stylistic offering still further. The forty-something Frenchman will not only add silky instrumental skills to the Tel Aviv synergy, he also brings a rich palette of colors and seasonings from across a broad cultural and genre spread.
Wrembel’s principal source of inspiration, unsurprisingly, is preeminent gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. The same can be said for Wrembel’s cohorts for the May 17 concert, guitarists Yaakov Hoter and Alon Sagi, and bassist Oren Sagi. But the Frenchman appears to take the Reinhardt ethos a step further.
“A lot of people see music through Django. They learn from Django and they see music like that,” Wrembel observes. “Not me. I see music as music.”
Not that Wrembel has any problems with feeding off the output and dynamics produced by the late legendary Belgian-born Romani giant of the idiom. Far from it.
“For me, Django is the foundation of all modern guitar,” he declares. “In reality, all modern guitar comes from him. If you can control the guitar with the Django stuff, then there’s nothing you cannot do. That is the key to rock, to jazz, to everything.”
Wrembel may now be enamored with Reinhardt’s oeuvre, but that wasn’t always the case. Born in 1974, the Frenchman grew up on a rich diet of rock and pop music. He feels that also has a say in how he goes about his work today.
“You cannot cancel what you grew up with,” he says. “I still remember when my mom came home with Ghost in the Machine, by [British rock pop band] Police.” That was in 1981, when Wrembel was just seven years old. “My clearest [rock] memory is that and [1979 Pink Floyd album] The Wall.
But Reinhardt was always there, somewhere in Wrembel’s developing mix. “I am from Fontainebleau [close to Paris], which is where Django lived. I grew up with it.”
Reinhardt’s rapid-fire guitar work may have been ever-present in Wrembel’s consciousness, but he didn’t always dig it. “I grew up with it, but I didn’t really care for it. I thought it was old people’s stuff. I was listening to all the ’80s [pop] crap.”
All that changed irrevocably when Wrembel was 17, when he got to know a 20-year-old budding musician who spent the vast majority of his waking hours playing jazz. “He was playing scales eight hours a day. You have to be crazy to be attracted to something like that. I thought that sounded amazing. I wanted to do that, too.” Wrembel was ready to dive in at the deep end. “I told my dad I was done with school – that was just three months before graduation – and I was just going to play music.”
Wrembel Sr. saw to it that a cooler head prevailed.
“He told me to finish my school studies and then I could play music as much as I wanted,” the guitarist recalls.
“Back then I was playing rock guitar, but I also studied classical piano. I told my teacher I wanted to improvise and play jazz, and he said, OK, let’s hear some Django.” The Wrembel career die was cast. “We started playing the [Django] chords, and I thought wow! that stuff is kind of cool.”
Over the years, Wrembel has maintained his quest to broaden his music horizons, studying Greek bouzouki and South Indian rhythms.
His career trajectory took a sharp upward turn when he received a phone call from film director Woody Allen, who asked him to put together some music for Allen’s 2011 movie Midnight in Paris. That led to the creation of “Bistro Fada,” the movie’s theme song, and Wrembel ended up rubbing elbows with some Hollywood A-listers when he performed at the 2012 Academy Award ceremony.
“That was fun. I did the red-carpet thing and all that,” he recalls.
One of the most impressive aspects of Wrembel’s performances is that he seems so relaxed, notwithstanding the greased-lightning tempos he pumps out.
“It’s not like a competition,” he notes. “I’m not trying to play fast. I want to play something that is meaningful.”
That goes for the whole festival, with British bass singer Stephen Connolly, a former member of the feted King’s Singers a cappella group; Celtic-inclined foursome Evergreen; early music specialist Spanish cellist Josetxu Obregón; and rocker Yermi Kaplan also on the roster.