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Gypsy Improv: Stephane Wrembel Comes to Bridgehampton

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Chamber Fest adjusted

By Claire Walla


French guitarist Stephane Wrembel is hard to pin down.

His gypsy guitar music — steadily strum rhythms overlain with meandering guitar melodies plucked with impossibly nimble speed in the vein of the man who practically invented the genre, Django Reinhardt — not only alludes to the Paris he grew up in, it bears resemblance to the sounds of the world at large.

“What I play is not jazz,” Wrembel clarified. “My music is for everyone. What we do can be appreciated by a jazz listener, or by a rock listener, or by a world listener; by anyone, any age, any origin.”

Such flexibility is perhaps to be expected from a guitarist whose musical career began at an early age with an undying devotion to Pink Floyd (which remains just as powerful to this day—he saw Roger Waters perform “The Wall” 12 times last year); then expanded with his study of contemporary jazz, Indian, African and Middle Eastern music; and most recently earned him professional praise from filmmaker Woody Allen, himself an accomplished jazz clarinetist, who has used Wrembel’s songs in two of his films.

“I don’t project anything,” Wrembel explained. “I just do music and whatever comes, comes.”

As it turns out, next on the docket is a performance at the annual Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival. Now in its 28th season here on the East End, the event has showcased dozens of world-renowned, classically trained musicians who — prior to playing the East End — have filled such famed chambers as the Royal Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall with their renditions of classical standards by the likes of Bach and Mozart.

Which might make you wonder: where does gypsy guitar fit in? It took the Bridgehampton program’s founder and artistic director Marya Martin a minute to figure it out, too.

Martin first learned of Wrembel about a year ago while finishing the final mastering of a CD with sound engineer Adam Abeshouse in New York City. As it happened, Abeshouse had just finished producing a record for Wrembel and he played a sample for Martin.

“I thought, that’s wonderful!” Martin relayed enthusiastically. “But I couldn’t imagine how I could make a program around jazz , gypsy-fusion guitar,” the classically trained flutist conceded, noting the obvious: “We play Brahms!”

But the idea stuck with her. Martin eventually spoke to Wrembel, and subsequently began listening to music by Django Reinhardt and the gypsy guitarist’s long-time accomplice, jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, both of whom greatly influenced Wrembel’s work. Soon enough, Martin’s research led her back to the music she knew so well.

“Brahm’s Piano Quartet in G Minor is a gypsy march,” she revealed. “It’s completely ethnic and wonderful. So, the more I started researching that, I had four programs of classical music inspired in some way by gypsy music of the ages, and I thought: We could make this work.”

Martin and Wrembel will collaborate with eight other artists on Friday, August 12 at Channing Daughters Winery for the annual Sm. Brian Little concert, where they will perform the fourth movement of Brahm’s Piano Quartet No. 1 (known as “Gypsy Rondo”), Osvaldo Golijov’s “Lulluby and Doina,” as well as song’s by Django Reinhardt and original works by Wrembel.

In the end, whether played by gypsy guitar or classical flute, as Wrembel effortlessly put it, “It’s all the same thing.”

At least for the most part.

Friday night’s orchestra will be playing a song composed by Wrembel called “Big Brother,” which was used to score the second half of Woody Allen’s 2008 Oscar-winning film “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” But, in order for Martin and the handful of other musicians to learn the music, Martin said she had to find someone to copy the sounds onto sheet music. Wrembel didn’t have it. “He said, Marya, I don’t read music. I don’t write anything down… we just do it!” Martin explained.

“It’s very different from us,” she continued. “We’re taught to respect the score and play one note as beautifully as we can. With jazz, it’s a whole different ball game. It’s improvising, being free, going off on a tangent that at least has some tie to the original [melody]… They spend a lot of time going over and over [a song] and it just becomes part of them. It’s a very different way of learning or composing.”

When Wrembel was asked to produce a song for Woody Allen’s current film, “Midnight in Paris,” the writer/director commissioned the Parisian guitarist to — without any prior knowledge of the film’s story — simply compose a song about the famed French city.

“I just stepped out and recorded kind of a standard. I recorded the rhythm guitar, then the melody just came to me,” Wrembel began. “I don’t know how to explain it, it’s really weird. I just sat down with my guitar and the melody came. That was it. It just poured out of me, I don’t know why.”

He didn’t draw inspiration from a collection of gathered images, or meticulously outlined chord progressions. “It’s more like, Paris is my town. It’s where I’m from. So, the song was just a dream about Paris. I could feel it, because it’s like home,” Wrembel continued. “When you think about home, wherever you are, you know the vibe of it.”

This will be the first time Martin will be playing with another musician so strongly bent on improvisation. She said she and the other musicians will practice with sheet music the day before their performance with Wrembel.

“We will certainly be playing with some notes,” she admitted. “But, it will certainly be a collaboration.”

Stephane Wrembel’s performance at the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival will be Friday, August 12 at the Channing Sculpture Garden. Wine-tasting and appetizers will be served at 6 p.m. The concert begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $100.