Chasing the Django -- The Best Guitar Player You've Never Heard of (Yet)
Tonight‚ I watched -- from not more than 3 feet in front of me -- one of the greatest guitar players I have ever seen in my 34 years on this earth.
I am not exaggerating. My beautiful wife loves to exaggerate about silly things like how long it takes me to empty the dishwasher or how many stairs she has to climb‚ so I am quite aware of how an exaggeration can make something sound like a hair more or less than what it really is. I stand by my statement and its many hairs. Stephane Wrembel is a true master at the guitar. There are many who fall into that category‚ and I have seen a lot of masterful guitar players. But none have ever melted my cortex more than Stephane‚ and none have attempted to do so in a 1930s swing gypsy-jazz kind of vibe.
I have this vivid memory of visiting my good friend in L.A. about eight years ago. While sitting in his backyard reading Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins‚ a hummingbird flew right in front of me and hovered there at my eye-level for about a minute (once again‚ not exaggerating). I was completely entranced by how fast this avian creature could flap its wings and stay completely still at the same time. I thought about this tonight as I watched Wrembel's right wrist flutter over his strings‚ as the fastest of articulate and mindblowingly accurate notes were sent flying through the small and intimate back room of my favorite Brooklyn music haunt. I wondered if his hand was simply going to detach from his wrist and fly across the room. Sitting in the front row of Barbes is like being on stage. You feel like you're sitting across the table from someone as you're engaged in an amazing musical conversation‚ except you're not saying a word (and there's no table).
Stephane is hailed as the Django Reinhardt of our time‚ and this is some serious praise. Trained by French gypsies‚ he absolutely lives up to it with the most unbelievable technique and jazz stylings that are nothing less than jaw-dropping. He started tonight's set by saying that he doesn't typically speak too much at his shows‚ yet proceeded to tell a story that was an analogy of today's financial crisis played out by insects. The long and the short of it was that grasshoppers are fun-loving artist-types and ants are greedy‚ hoarding banker-types. We were all laughing as the story unfolded about how the grasshopper asked the ant for help and was hastily denied‚ but when the monetary black hole of 2008 came around‚ the ant had come to the carefree grasshopper asking for assistance and was welcomed into his home‚ fed and invited to play music with all the other grasshoppers who although lacking in funds were abundant in spirit. Stephane then showed the packed room at Barbes exactly just what kind of spirit this badass grasshopper had in store. Varying from Middle Eastern rambles at the highest of speeds to a blistering cover of the 30s jazz standard "All of Me‚" he was anchored by a seriously tight band made up of rhythm guitar‚ acoustic bass‚ and a percussionist who played a djembe like a snare drum and a dumbeck like a ride cymbal. At every pass of this tight quartet's soloing prowess‚ a new level of amazement was achieved by each player‚ only to be quadrupled in force by Stephane's virtuosity. No matter how quickly his notes rang out‚ his band kept up in perfect time at a monstrous toe-tapping speed.
In Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown‚ Sean Penn plays the fictional Emmet Ray‚ who claims to be the second greatest guitar player in the world‚ seemingly chasing down Django and constantly lamenting that he's not as good as his superior. He never gets to meet him as he faints every time he's in his presence. Stephane Wrembel has not only chased down Django Reinhardt‚ but has been riding alongside him for years‚ keeping up with the furious pace and flair of his incredible playing. Tonight‚ I was floored by a level of guitar skill that may have ruined me forever. Of course‚ calling someone "the best" at something is such subjective nonsense. But for a few hours‚ I was transported into a 1930s speakeasy‚ watching an expert with the greatest of command and the simplest of ease play a style of guitar not commonly heard‚ and doing it with the greatest melodic and technical ability I have ever witnessed. Stephane is a busy man‚ playing almost daily all over the country‚ but luckily (at least for me) a good percentage of those dates according to his website are in New York. I dare you to go see him and call me an exaggerator.