For the last several years, guitarist Stephane Wrembel has mined the Django Reinhardt songbook more deeply than just about anyone other than the godfather of Romany jazz himself. Wrembel’s Django Experiment albums offer uncommonly dynamic insight into how Reinhardt blended American swing, French ragtime, classical music and Romany folk songs into a style that would become its own musical subculture. Wrembel’s new solo album Django L’Impressioniste – streaming at youtube – is a milestone, a major rediscovery of Reinhardt’s rarely played and recorded classical music along with a handful of more famous tunes.
This is hardly an album that can be digested in a single sitting: the depth of Reinhardt’s ideas is vast, offering new discoveries with every return trip. The amount of time Wrembel must have spent transcribing and then working up this material is staggering. He first plays Improvisation #2 – one of the few numbers here that’s become part of the Django canon – with a sense of the fantastical, slowly and spaciously, a rapt vision of mythical beasts cavorting deep in the forest. There’s also a transcription of Reinhardt’s second take that’s even more lingering and suspenseful.
Guitarists typically play Reinhardt songs with a brisk, shuffling staccato, which makes sense since that’s how he played them; Wrembel’s resonant, thoughtfully legato approach casts this material in a completely new light. Case in point: the lingering bittersweetness of the 1937 ballad Parfum.
Juxtaposing alternate takes faithful to Reinhardt’s original recordings provides enormous insight into just how carefully he crafted his oeuvre. Back-to-back versions of a “solo improvise” from the BBC in 1937 reveal how much of a difference just a few judicious tweaks of rhythm and attack completely transform this music.
Likewise, there are two versions of Improvisation No. 3, variations on a gorgeously melancholy stroll, the second more stern and incisive. Improvisation No. 4 is the most severe until Wrembel picks it up with an unexpectedly jaunty bounce. Improvisation No. 5 is a pure, unabashed neoromantic ballad with Romany flourishes. The distantly flamencoish Improvisation No. 6 is the starkest, most nocturnal and aguably most cohesively compelling of all these pieces.
The intricate lattice of chords in Naguine foreshadows where Americans like Les Paul would take guitar jazz, yet it’s much more unpredictable. The flamenco-inflected vistas of Echoes of Spain are exactly that: spare and often utterly desolate. The epic take of Belleville, Reinhardt’s hometown shout-out, has strikingly roughhewn contrast, akin to Debussy through the rough-and-tumble prism of life on the fringes – along with what seems to be a playfully erudite study for an eventual three-minute hit.
A similarly expansive exploration of Nuages is all the more vividly summery for Wrembel’s unhurried, dynamically shifting interpretation. The details are devilishly fun: a hint of a bolero, an ambush of muted low strings, a flicker of 19th century Parisian art-song. And the only non-Django original here, Tea for Two, gets a hushed, tiptoeing treatment that really goes to the heart of that much-maligned (some would say schlocky) love ballad. Beyond the sheer beauty and scope of the music, this album has immense historical value. Wrembel’s almost-every-week Sunday night Barbes residency continues this Jan 19 at around 9:30; lately, he’s been opening the show solo and then bringing up the band. If you get lucky, he’ll play some of this material completely unplugged.