Stephane Wrembel doesn’t want to talk about the gypsies.
In published interviews with the French guitarist, one of two things inevitably comes up first: his training, at a young age, by gypsy guitarists in the style of legendary Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt; or his collaborations with Woody Allen (he wrote songs for Vicky Christina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris). “Can I start with something else?” Wrembel asks when we predictably inquire about his time with France’s traveling Romani people.
Yes, he says, he learned a great deal from the gypsies, but he also played Led Zeppelin as a young man, learned waltzes and jazz in Paris, and picked up bluegrass and Indian raga at the Berklee School of Music. He traveled and learned new styles in South America and West Africa. He acquired Japanese techniques. The idea, he says, was to amass “the biggest arsenal of styles possible” in the service of a greater artistic vision.
“The music we play is based on an impressionist state of mind, which means that the music requires the imagination of the listener,” Wrembel says. “The whole point is to trigger images in the mind of the listener.”
Born in Paris, Wrembel was raised in Fontainebleau, a crucial location in the history of impressionist painting whose forests the painters gravitated toward for subject matter (it is also the town where Django chose to live the final years of his life). At age four, Wrembel started taking classical music lessons from an elderly teacher who once knew the impressionist composer Claude Debussy. But while Debussy himself loathed the term “impressionist” in descriptions of his music, Wrembel has embraced it.
On Wrembel’s latest album, this year’s Origins, a careful listener will hear much more than bouncy, Django-style guitar work, although there is plenty of that. In the song “Water Is Life,” there are traces of classic-rock guitar vamping; on “Tsunami,” there is a subtle interplay between bassist Dave Speranza, drummer Nick Anderson, and percussionist David Langlois that sounds like a pulsing force of nature. Interspersed throughout are passages of whip-fast acoustic lead guitar work by Wrembel that would make any bedroom-noodling metalhead hang up his Flying V guitar and weep. On tracks like “Prometheus,” rhythm guitarist Roy Williams lays a steady framework with plucky chord progressions that call bluegrass to mind.
The songs, Wrembel says, are meant to be heard as one continuous piece, and the vision for the piece is vast in scope. Beginning and ending with the slow-droning tracks “The Voice from the Desert” and “Carbon 14,” Origins is a vision of life springing up from dust and then returning to dust, across a canvas as vast as the Big Bang and the formation of galaxies. The desert, he says, is an important metaphor on the album, whether a literal desert or “the desert of space and time” that preceded the beginning of the universe. “When I went to the desert in New Mexico for the first time and I saw the sun going down, you know there is life and death in the desert, and there is nothing else,” Wrembel says. “You are alive, or you are dead, and there is no in between.”
Wrembel talks about his art with a feverishness that would seem overblown for a less dedicated player. Since deciding to become a professional musician at age 19, he has never taken a day job — not even when he moved to New York City with $300 in his pocket, crashed at a friend’s apartment, and started cold-calling French restaurants to see if they needed a guitarist. “I never considered that, because I know [it would be] death for me,” Wrembel says. “If I stop to cover these needs with a job, my career as a musician is over.”
Perhaps the most lyrical track on Origins is “The Selfish Gene,” an intense burst of inventive jazz drumming and furious guitar voyaging that clocks in at under three minutes. The title, of course, is cribbed from Richard Dawkins’ seminal 1976 book on evolution, which fascinated Wrembel when he read it.
“It’s the sense of evolution, of life and of momentum, that made me write that song,” he says. The image is of “a force of nature that moves on no matter what, and it’s like the strong crunches the weak.” Wrembel speaks of music with a similar sense of fate, as if he can do nothing else. Music, he says, is life and death to him and his band — an attitude that he learned, yes, from the gypsies.
“You know, it’s like an apple tree: How do you stop an apple tree from giving apples?” Wrembel says. “You can’t. The apple tree just gives apples.”