The Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) is considered the first great jazz artist to come out of Europe. His group, the Hot Club of France, was co-led by violinist Stephane Grappelli (1908-1997), who emerged as a full-fledged star on the international circuit after Django’s untimely death.
Django developed his unique style after he suffered a terrible injury in a fire during 1928, as a result of which he lost the use of two fingers on his left hand. To convey an idea of his influence, bluesman B.B. King once demonstrated in a television interview how his playing had changed as a result of listening to Reinhardt’s recordings. Reinhardt met Grappelli in 1934 and the group they formed was comprised of guitars—Django’s brother Joseph played rhythm guitar—plus bass and violin. The group had no drummer but they created an infectious form of swing music that became popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
For the past ten years, the master guitarist Stephane Wrembel has been holding an annual Django A Gogo Music Festival. The week-long festival includes master classes and evening performances in Maplewood, New Jersey. The most high profile event at this year’s series was the Festival’s first ever concert in Carnegie Hall.
The affable virtuoso Wremble acted as master of ceremonies and played throughout the show with his own group and with an array of guest stars. The works on the program included some written or famously recorded by Django and others were by the musicians performing at the show.
Wremble started with Django’s intricate Improvisation No. 1. Then, he was joined by his group (rhythm guitarist Thor Jensen, bassist Ari Folman-Cohen and drummer Nick Anderson) and they played Wremble’s “Prometheus.” David Gastine, a rhythm guitarist and mellow singer, joined and provided the vocal on “Reverie” a song French crooner Jean Sablon had recorded with Django.
Wremble played “Bistro Fada,” a song he had written for the Grammy winning soundtrack of Woody Allen’s “Moonlight in Paris.”
The terrific bluegrass guitarist Larry Keel highlighted the similarities between Django’s fast picking and the American folk variety. He ended with a tribute to the late Doc Watson, pointing out that it was the music giant’s birthday.
The American theme continued with Gastine singing John Denver’s “Country Roads” with exuberance if not authenticity (on account of his French accent).
Stochelo Rosenberg, an extraordinary Gypsy guitarist in Django’s tradition, soloed on “For Sephora,” the beautiful piece he wrote for his sister.
Soprano saxophonist Nick Driscoll provided a modernist edge to Django’s moody “Troublant Bolero.”
Al Di Meola came out and announced that this was his first appearance at Carnegie Hall in 42 years. He had last played at the venue as a 19 year old with Return to Forever (Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White). A solo piece revealed that his virtuosity is on a par with the giants on state.
After the intermission, the guitar trio of Di Meola, Rosenberg and Wremble played “Mediterranean Sundance” followed by Chick Corea’s “Spain.”
The other musicians returned for a fleet-fingered rendition of “Double Jeu” followed by the nostalgic “Indifference.” Ryan Montbleau sang “Georgia on my Mind” and then the swinging Ellington tune, “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”
For lovers of jazz guitar and Django’s music, the concert was a triumph, as evidenced by several standing ovations. Wremble deserves credit for putting the festival together and for playing so brilliantly.