Stephane Wrembel has been called one of the best guitarists in the world. He's become known for his uncanny abilities, and for playing Django Reinhardt-style gypsy music, not to mention healthy doses of jazz, folk, rock, bluegrass, classical, flamenco, Middle Eastern, blues and African music.
Born in France, but a resident of New York City for the last decade, Wrembel has headlined at Lincoln Center and played with such masters as mandolin player David Grisman and violinist Mark O'Connor.
This year, Wrembel performed his composition "Bistro Fada" (the theme from Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris) live at the Academy Awards. And following a boost from a recent appearance on National Public Radio, Wrembel saw his fifth album, Origins, shoot up the Billboard and iTunes jazz charts.
That all may sound sophisticated, but Wrembel chooses to describe what he does in different terms.
"We are really, in our hearts, a jam band," he says on the phone from New York. "We play our songs, but also have open structures in which anything can happen. Improvisation is very important, and so is a rock-type energy.
"The way I see it, what we do is more like rock music, but with an acoustic guitar. And, actually, now I am playing an electric guitar sometimes. The next recording will probably be different because of that, too."
Wrembel will play in Tucson for the first time on Sunday, July 15, at Club Congress. Joining him onstage will be his longtime band: bassist Dave Speranza, rhythm guitarist Roy Williams, drummer Nick Anderson and percussionist David Langlois.
As much as any contemporary guitarist, Wrembel has brought renewed attention to the spirit and music of French guitarist Reinhardt.
"There is a growing fascination for Django everywhere in the world. People are finally discovering again what a genius he (was), and I am flattered if they hear that a part of my playing style is like his."
But Reinhardt wasn't Wrembel's first musical love or influence. That would be Pink Floyd.
"When I was 5 years old, The Wall came out, and when I heard it as a teenager, that is what first gave me the will to play music, to play the guitar. I had taken classical piano lessons from the age of 4 to 16, but after I heard Pink Floyd, it was all the guitar."
Wrembel says that as a teenager, he used to set The Wall CD on repeat and let it play all night.
"There were (other) things that I am attached (to) because of my childhood. I used to admire them, but as I got older and became better as a musician, I thought this one or that was not that great. With the works of Roger Waters, especially The Wall, I've become more and more impressed by it. I am still learning from Pink Floyd."
As Wrembel grew and played, he became exposed to other rock music as well as jazz, classical and folk from all over the world.
"My favorite guitarists are still David Gilmour, Frank Zappa, Jimmy Page and Andy Summers, who used a lot of textures in a similar way to the Edge from U2. I transcribed a lot of the Police when I was younger."
This was around the same time Wrembel became engrossed in the tradition of folk music played by Sinti gypsies in camps in the French countryside, and he ventured out to visit and learn from them.
He wanted to play all day, like the gypsies he encountered in the countryside. "This idea of playing 12 hours a day was very exciting to me. I was not afraid of that. I wanted to master the guitar, and to reach the level of the masters, that is what I felt I had to do."
Wrembel says the term gypsy jazz, which lazily is used to describe Reinhardt's style, is a misnomer. "I don't consider Django's music as jazz. Django was influenced by jazz.
"When you play with gypsies, it is more like folk music rather than jazz. They have access to a certain power to play acoustic instruments, and the techniques of theirs are like a secret. Jazz is very intellectual and very cold. I wasn't very into jazz until I learned how to improvise. That felt like gypsy music—warm and powerful and intense. And I think that is what I saw in common with what happens in rock."
After high school, Wrembel pursued painting in art school, but the guitar kept drawing him away. He eventually enrolled in the Berklee College of Music in Boston and graduated summa cum laude two years later. He moved to New York full time in 2003. His first album, Introducing Stephane Wrembel, was released in 2002 to much acclaim, and the critical praise has only gotten stronger over the years. Many listeners got their first taste of Wrembel when Woody Allen borrowed "Big Brother" (from his album Barbes-Brooklyn) for the soundtrack of his 2008 film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Communication is at the core of music, Wrembel says. Its existence requires that it be heard as well as played.
"I play music, because otherwise, I would die. If you are an apple tree, you have to give apples. Music is a way to express things you can't say in words; it is a very particular, abstract language ... and it's hard to decipher, but you can feel it.
"Music is like a good session of acupuncture—after it is over, you are floating. My role as a musician is to tap into that."
And each performance is unique.
"Everyone can play the notes, if they practice. No two people will play the same notes the same way. And each time I play the same notes, they are different. Music is what is left after the notes."