Precious time: Jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel rides the imagination

Accomplished jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel eschews fame and fortune for the celebration of life on Earth through music. He performs with his quartet at the Southern on Saturday. Photo: J. Elon Goodman Accomplished jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel eschews fame and fortune for the celebration of life on Earth through music. He performs with his quartet at the Southern on Saturday. Photo: J. Elon Goodman

Webster’s dictionary defines jazz guitarist as a virtuoso strings player who refuses to make a decent buck on his or her talents.

O.K. not really. But consider the case of Stephane Wrembel. The Frenchman started playing the piano when he was 4 years old. He studied under a renowned classical pianist and began dabbling in composition writing at a young age. He picked up the guitar at 15 to learn more classics—Pink Floyd, The Police, Led Zeppelin. He attended the American School of Modern Music in Paris and was inspired by the work of iconic gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. He won a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music and graduated summa cum laude.

Long story short, Wrembel has the chops to play guitar in just about any style, and as well as just about anyone. So why isn’t he cashing checks as a Top 40 smashing rock band? Why isn’t he, say, this generation’s Joe Satriani?

“I don’t think in those terms, you know,” Wrembel told C-VILLE Weekly over the phone. “Although I make a living through playing music, I don’t play music to make money. I consider my time on Earth is very precious, so I just want to play what I want to play. I play what I think is most accurate to my vision of the world, and I try to celebrate that every time in concert.”

Not that Wrembel is exactly a starving musician. When he graces The Southern Café and Music Hall stage on April 25, he’ll primarily play tunes from his latest record, Dreamers of Dreams. But he’ll also do “Bistro Fada,” a song he wrote as the theme for the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris and performed live at the Oscars in 2012.

So yeah, he’s had some success.

And who knows, if Wrembel didn’t stick to his artistic vision, perhaps he wouldn’t have been dubbed a “revelation” by Rolling Stone. If he didn’t, as he put it, “hook up with the gypsies in [his] town” when he was 19, perhaps he’d be nothing more than a middling rock talent, instead of the preeminent jazz guitarist in the world.

As it stands, Wrembel’s decades of studying paid off big time when Allen, or more specifically Howard Alden, Allen’s longtime score man, came calling for a fresh composer on the Midnight in Paris soundtrack. In a very short time, Wrembel had to channel all his experience and write a song that captured the spirit and pace of 1920s Paris. He was racing against other composers, he said, and if he didn’t get the track done in time, Allen and Alden might have chosen a different theme song.

“You know, it took three hours to do it, but for 20 years I had worked so hard,” Wrembel said. “When there is a moment of pressure and you concentrate, things come. That is what it is—you are the thing you are doing. If you say you are concentrating, you are not concentrating, you are thinking of concentrating. When you are truly in the thing you are doing, you are in a trance mode.”

It’s no coincidence that Wrembel’s most famous collaborator counts a movie about Reinhardt among his portfolio. In 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, Allen painted a portrait of Emmet Ray, an otherwise surly jazz guitarist who idolizes Reinhardt to the point he can’t listen to him play a note without weeping.

Wrembel didn’t like the idea of being compared to the alcoholic, womanizing Ray, whose favorite hobbies include shooting rats and watching trains, but it turns out the Reinhardt idolization in Sweet and Lowdown isn’t so far-fetched. Wrembel said when he plays jazz guitar, he follows “the code of Django.” That doesn’t mean playing the gypsy’s songs, he said, but his music is the basis on which Wrembel’s improvisations, his “repertoire” is built. On top of that base is everything else he’s learned, like the classical compositions and of course the Floyd and Zeppelin.

“This music all revolves around the guitar, and guitar is very important in those classic rock songs,” Wrembel said. “It is a very important language on the guitar. The Django style is one thing, but it is very targeted. When I compose, it is not a copy of Django.”

What can Charlottesville expect when Wrembel shows up with his quartet, filled out by guitarist Roy Williams, bassist Kells Nollenberger and drummer Nick Anderson?

“You go back to the thing with concentration. You take a ride on your own imagination with the music,” Wrembel said. “If you talk about something else when the music is playing, you are not there. You might as well be at home at a barbecue and putting on music.”

No doubt, it’ll be a show you want to listen to closely. And if all goes well, it’ll be utterly unique, like a musical snowflake (a metaphor that Wrembel seemed to consider pretty elementary, by the way).

“We unfold the show according to what we feel in terms of vibe,” Wrembel said. “The story can be told many different ways, and we can choose one song or another. Each show is a single shot in the history of humanity.”

Take that, Satriani.

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