Gypsy king: From a stool in Brooklyn, Stephane Wrembel plays in the tradition of Django Reinhardt, and invents his own

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Wrembel playing. (Per Liljas)
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Per Liljas

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It was a frosty Sunday evening and the window of the Park Slope bar Barbès was fogged to opacity.

Inside, at the far end of the narrow bar, applause was spilling out through a velvet-curtained doorway. As the clapping subsided an acoustic bass and guitar picked out a waltz rhythm in nimble, minor chords, before a second guitar begun pirouetting, picking notes as it advanced up and retreat back down the scale, each time taking a slightly different path.

In the audience, a white-haired lady rested her chin on her companion's shoulder; a young man with red cap effected a dreamy gaze; this was a familiar melody. The same tune is struck as Owen Wilson's character walks out onto the dark streets in the movie Midnight in Paris. It's gypsy jazz, as French as Zinedine Zidane and escargots. But deployed in a movie by Woody Allen, and written and performed by New York-based Frenchman Stéphane Wrembel, it's really more like a correspondence between Paris and New York.

Woody Allen has included gypsy jazz in many of his soundtracks, most often licensing compositions by Django Reinhardt, the undisputed father of gypsy jazz. But in Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, Allen turned to Wrembel. After a decade in New York, Wrembel has built a reputation as the best gypsy jazz guitarist in town, one of the best in the country, and one of the few given the freedom—and even then, not by every Django enthusiast—to proselytize his own brand of gypsy jazz.

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"There is no such thing as gypsy jazz," Wrembel said, accelerating his French accented English for emphasis, then halting. "It's 'Django.' Django was one guy, a lot of people were inspired by him, but they do different things."

He was perched on a bar stool at the Park Slope café Tea Lounge. While Django Reinhardt wore tailored suits and a fedora and a thin, black moustache, Wrembel favors dark jeans and T-shirts. He was wearing a small, meditating silver Buddha on a leather band around his neck, and his dark hair pulled back into a knot; there were a couple of days' stubble on his rounded cheeks. While Reinhardt was a late-night rambler, Wrembel is substance-free and does not eat meat.

The town where Wrembel grew up, Fontainebleu, is only a couple of miles upstream from Samois-sur-Seine, the town where Reinhardt died in 1953, and to which Django fans have been making pilgrimages since 1983 for an annual festival held there in his honor.

Jean "Django" Reinhardt was an unlikely figure to revolutionize jazz music and guitar playing. As a manouche, as Romani in France are often called, he grew up low in the Paris slum La Zone. The style of music Reinhardt grew up with, developed over some 10 centuries in migrations from central India through most of Europe and North Africa, had by the 20th century acquired a distinct instrumentation (violin and guitar) and had long influenced waves of French musical style. Reinhardt made his living playing romantic, French musette waltzes with Paris' dance-hall bands, picking out the melodies on a banjo. But after losing two fingers while battling a fire in his caravan, few believed he would ever play again.

In fact he picked up the lighter-stringed guitar and created a new style, mixing the musette with jazz and gypsy music. Combined with a technique that was faster and more advanced than anyone else's, Reinhardt became a star, toured the U.S. with Duke Ellington and gained the legendary status he still holds among jazz and guitar lovers today.

For many gypsies, Reinhardt's sound was also anthemic, especially in the shadow of the horrors of their persecution by the Nazis. Still in gypsy camps today, children start learning his music from the day they can hold a guitar.

Wrembel was not a gypsy, but a boy who started out playing classical piano at age four and didn't touch a guitar until he was 15. It was six years later when his guitar teacher first introduced him to a gypsy camp.

"When we arrived in the camp they were so happy to see us because it was, like, party time," Wrembel said. "The women would offer us coffee or beer, we'd smoke cigarettes and jam with them for hours and hours, with all the people gathered around us to listen."

For years, Wrembel combined jamming in the camps with studying jazz at the American School of Modern Music in Paris. Then, in 2000, he was admitted to Berklee College of Music and moved to Boston. After graduating, he came to New York with little else but his guitar, and started looking for gigs.

Right around that time, gypsy jazz was having a revival in the U.S.

In 1999, Woody Allen made gypsy jazz the milieu of his movie Sweet and Lowdown, starring Sean Penn as the fictional, Django-adoring guitarist Emmet Ray. The year after, music producer Pat Phillips hosted the country's first Django festival, or "Djangofest," at Birdland in Manhattan, and more festivals like it started springing up all over the country in the years that followed.

"Gypsy jazz is everything," Phillips said. "It's original, swinging, romantic, extremely melodic, very hip, musicians connecting with the audience and each other. There's a certain love in the music, probably more than in many other genres, because you don't get rich playing it, or at least very, very few do. Some people can play it very well, but you get the soul through your family and being in the camps."

Wrembel had that advantage when he started offering his services in New York.

"I knew that not so many people played Django, and no one could use the knowledge that I have, since I learned in the camps," he said.

He started with French restaurants that offered a little space for live music, and in only a few weeks had nine weekly gigs as well as 15 students.

Denis Chang, from Montréal, was one of them.

"Stéphane's main advice was: forget all you've been taught, just play with your balls," Chang said, laughing. "He's like that, all out."

Wrembel met Olivier Conan the year after he'd opened up his Park Slope bar-cum-world music stage Barbès.

"Stéphane was really insistent and said 'please, please, can I just come over and play, I know you'll love it.' So he came over, and indeed we loved it."

Since then, Wrembel has performed at Barbès almost every Sunday, and Conan has watched Wrembel grow beyond the limits of 'Django.'

"We both grew during those first years," Conan said. "In the beginning Stéphane played very authentic Django, but as he became more confident, he started adding more of himself and experimenting, constantly changing his style and the personnel of his band."

In fact the name of Wrembel's band suggests both fidelity and experimentation: It's called The Django Experiment. Through his own compositions, Wrembel has infused his repertoire with elements of rock, classical, Indian and West African music.

"Barbès is like family, you know, playing there is like being at home," Wrembel said. "There, I can play whatever I want, do whatever experiments I want."

Whereas: "When I was in France I couldn't develop my style peacefully."

In France, Wrembel said, some Django fans keep a tight rein on how the genre is played. There are also those who are just complacent.

"Stéphane is one of the rare Gypsy jazz musicians who is daring enough to step outside of the shadow of Django," Michael Dregni, author of several books on gypsy jazz and Django Reinhardt, said. "Too many guitarists are happy to play Django's compositions over and over, sometimes simply repeating Django's own solos. Stéphane is brave enough to compose his own music, inspired by the spirit of Django but capturing his own sound. And he's even moving outside of Django's realm in new directions with his acoustic jazz. It's very exciting."

The Django Experiment's most-often recurring member is David Langlois, whose percussion is a peculiar instrument made up of a washboard and, literally, pots and pans and parts thereof.

"Some people have said 'oh no, not that rasta playing his pots and pans again, that's not Django'," Langlois said. "At some Djangofest I brought up my djembe [a West African drum] and 30 percent of the audience left. But mostly, we've got good comments."

But of course the music of the manouche was always a multicultural production. And, at the heart of Wrembel's music, Django is never invisible.

Until the Seattle Djangofest in October 2011, that is. Then Wrembel finally decided to play exclusively his own repertoire—no Reinhardt compositions at all.

"I got sick of hearing everyone play ‘All of Me' and ‘Minor Swing' and I thought, 'man, I can't do this anymore. It's time for me to just, like, do what I do.' And I have just the right band right now. Now we only play my compositions, and we follow it religiously. That's my way to celebrate Django. I think he would have liked that more than hearing his songs being played badly."

Wrembel likes to say that he works "in the light of Django, instead of in his shadow."

And of course he's not alone: There are Parisian gypsies who rap to Django and Los Angeles gypsies who mash up Django with surf-rock harmonies.

Wrembel's style is distinct in its own way, though: Less local, more universal. After his classical schooling, but even before he came to know of Django, there had been one great influence on his thinking about music: Pink Floyd. Last year, Wrembel went to see "The Wall," Pink Floyd vocalist Roger Waters' worldwide tour, 12 times. Four times in France, eight times in the U.S., once with his grandmother and once with his six-year-old son.

"Pink Floyd is like"—Wrembel inhaled deeply, his eyes widening—"waaahhh … that big sound. You look into your fears, straight in the eyes."

On his way to the Sunday gig at Barbès, Pink Floyd's album Animals is always spinning in the car stereo. When he's on stage, you can sense the inspiration. As one of Wrembel's waltzes evolves into a swing and then dissolves into a rocking, free jazz jam, it's as if you're looking into that very same existential abyss those psychedelic Brits were so well acquainted with.

At the back of the bar at Barbès that cold night, The Django Experiment was about halfway into its second half-hour-long set. Heads were bobbing, feet stomping, all eyes trained on the band. Roy Williams strummed out la pompe, the locomotive-like gypsy-jazz rhythm-section pulse, going faster and faster, as sweat drops formed and ran down across the tattooed eagle jutting out above drummer Nick Anderson's shirt collar—faster—Dave Speranza played the bass with his mouth open, absently looking up toward the pressed tin ceiling, hardly seeing it through his focused grimace. The rhythm got faster as David Langlois turned the washboard instrument into a tornado of dreadlocks and lightning-fast, thimble-fingered percussion. The crowd hollered, and a wisp of hair fell over Wrembel's face, through which his eyes stared straight ahead, focused and wild, as his guitar growled out a single disharmonious chord; faster, then louder, then faster, then—that moment of release, as the band in unison leaps back onto the safe ground of the main theme, and the audience erupted in climactic cheering, whistles and applause.