LIVE: Stephane Wrembel @ MASS MoCA’s Courtyard Café, 8/23/14
Review and photographs by J Hunter
It’s kind of sad to think this night of technically acoustic, but spiritually electric, music wasn’t even supposed to happen. The Courtyard Café was supposed to belong to the Lost Bayou Ramblers, a Grammy-nominated Cajun rock band from (Where else?) Louisiana, but they had to cancel. By sports standards, a substitute is never as good as the player he or she replaces, but I’ve seen Mose Allison pinch-hit at Caffe Lena, so bang goes that stereotype. As last-minute gets go, MASS MoCA hit the lottery with Stephane Wrembel, whose past appearances in Greater Nippertown are the stuff of legend.
For someone who came to New York City in 2000 with only $300 in his pocket, the French guitar wizard has done tremendously well: World tours, six recordings (seven if you count the one coming out on September 13) and music in two Woody Allen films. The latter point is crucial, particularly when you factor in Allen’s longtime love affair with the music of Django Reinhardt. There are more than a few groups out there perpetuating the sound created by Reinhardt and the Quintette du Hot Club de France, but – like MASS MoCA – Wrembel thinks outside the box, augmenting Reinhardt’s iconic sound with influences from Africa, India, Japan, and a host of places Wrembel has seen on his personal & professional journey.
Wrembel brought all those experiences to bear on this evening, and he was as congenial as the outdoor bar-turned-club space he was playing. “We just went to the pub,” he informed the packed house after the wild applause died down. He added sheepishly, “I am incapable of pronouncing the name.” (It was the Freightyard Pub.) That bit of information provided, he got down to taking us on a journey of our own, taking us to places he’s seen in person and in his mind. And as we moved from place to place, you could see why Allen is a fan of Wrembel’s music: Aside from Wrembel’s re-imaging of Reinhardt as World Music artist, Wrembel’s imagery comes with no words, but it is as bright and sharp as cut crystal.
The pensive opener “Voice in the Desert” put you right in the middle of a place that was dark, mysterious and arid, with the oncoming glow of the sun shedding increasing light on the majestic vastness that surrounded you. Then Wrembel literally drove us away from all of it with “Momentum,” a big pusher inspired by driving on American highways – something he loves to do. (His pre-song compare-and-contrast between American and European highways was hilarious.) Later, he would take us to the Japan of his imagination – and the Japan wrecked by natural disaster – with the intricate two-parter “Tsunami,” and then we went back to Nigeria with Wrembel on the exotic new song “The Road to Jos.” The latter tune comes from “snapshots and atmospheres” Wrembel has gathered during annual trips to Africa, where he plays at American embassies every Fourth of July. (“I… am America on that day,” he said reverently, playing a few notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his guitar.)
Like a lot of modern jazzers, Wrembel started out as a rock fan, with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin serving as major influences. As such, it’s no surprise that he can shred like a sous chef making gourmet coleslaw. But the singular lyricism that comes with these mammoth chops is utterly masterful, telling each story exactly the way it should be told. His Greek mythology-inspired “Prometheus” practically described the Parthenon down to the street vendor where Zeus liked to buy his falafel. Although many of his pieces are straight Gypsy jazz out of the Reinhardt playbook, they all clearly came from Wrembel’s heart, particularly the breakneck “Frantic Pace,” which made Reinhardt’s “Rhythm Futur” seem almost leisurely.
Wrembel’s one of those rare artists who honestly doesn’t need a foil onstage; his playing is that strong. That said, his back-up band showed they could more than hold than hold their own as the night progressed. Drummer Nick “Napoleon” Anderson played stunning counters all evening, his massive power showing even when he stuck to brushes, and he let loose for good and all towards the end of “Frantic.” Rhythm guitarist Roy Williams cleaves more to the customary Django sound, which allowed him to help bassist Kells Nollenberger build the foundations Wrembel used as a launch-pad. That said, both players showed they brought their own chops along, with Nollenberger adding solid solos to “The Edge” and “Big Brother” (from Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and Williams laying down his own searing lines on “Prometheus.”
Officially, the end-of-summer dance concert doesn’t happen at MASS MoCA until Labor Day weekend, when the wild Afro-funk tentet Emefé (pronounced “MFA”) blows up Courtyard C. But if there’d been enough room for a dance floor in the Courtyard café, Stephane Wrembel’s bright, life-filled music would have had that sucker filled more than once. Between the hot music he played and the great stories he told, this was a cool evening in more ways than meteorological. Not bad for a last-minute sub, I’d say.