Woody Allen's affinity for gypsy jazz is obvious to anyone who has seen - or just listened to - his films. The director has used Django Reinhardt's music on his sound tracks at least as far back as 1980's Stardust Memories, and his 1999 movie Sweet and Lowdown stars Sean Penn as a shiftless guitarist who both worships and envies the legendary guitarist.
So it says something that when Allen wanted a distinctly French jazz guitar sound for his time-traveling 2011 Midnight in Paris, he turned to Stephane Wrembel. He performed the resulting song, the charmingly nostalgic, exotically infectious "Bistro Fada," at the 2012 Academy Awards ceremony, and it has since entered the repertoire of most gypsy jazz ensembles, despite its hurried inception.
"When Woody Allen asks for something, you have to deliver," Wrembel says. "It's not like we hang out and have coffee and long conversations. His producer called me one day at 9 a.m., by noon I composed, recorded, and delivered the song, and at 2 p.m., she got back to me and said, 'We put it everywhere in the movie. It fits everywhere. We like it.'"
Wrembel will perform an evening of his Woody-approved music Saturday at the Venetian Social Club, kicking off the new Chestnut Hill Community Concert Series, sponsored by Weavers Way Co-op and presented by Philly's own gypsy jazz ensemble the Hot Club of Philadelphia.
Wrembel was raised in Fontainebleau, France, the town where Reinhardt spent his final years and learned to play the guitar at gypsy campsites. Yet he surprisingly describes his own music by saying, "My style is a New York style." That's in part because he's now based in Brooklyn, but mainly because of his open-eared embrace of influences from across cultures, traditions, and styles. Where many gypsy jazz bands adhere religiously to period-accurate recreations of the Django sound, Wrembel blends sounds from rock, modern jazz, and diverse world musics into his own original compositions.
"In New York, you have a church next to a bank next to a brownstone, and it all works," he says. "You rarely have musicians who come and play a single tradition. You end up playing with a Cuban guy on percussion, a French guy on bass, a violin player from Russia, and a singer from Japan. Everyone is going to naturally bring their thing, and you find a common ground. That's how you find something new."
On his most recent album, Dreamers of Dreams, Wrembel fuses his gypsy jazz background with discoveries made on travels through Africa, Asia, Europe, and Central America. When we spoke last week, he'd just returned from performing in France and Nigeria, and later this year he'll release his latest collection, Live in India.
Creating hybrid music isn't something he sets out to do, Wrembel says. It comes naturally. Inspired by the impressionist art that also flourished in his native Fontainebleau, he writes with an image, not a sound, in mind.
"I'm influenced by Django, that's true, but I'm also influenced by Pink Floyd. I'm also influenced by Rabih Abou-Khalil. I'm also influenced by Indian music. When I write a song, I have something in mind, like an image, and I use every angle of music that I know to convey the spirit of the image through sound."
On Saturday, Wrembel will hew more closely to his gypsy jazz origins than usual. With his drummer unavailable for the date, he'll play in a trio with a second guitarist and bassist, a setting particular conducive to the Django repertoire. It's a fitting way to inaugurate the Chestnut Hill series, the brainchild of Hot Club founder and guitarist Barry Wahrhaftig.
"I want to showcase some groups that people normally wouldn't have a chance to see in Philly," Wahrhaftig says. "It won't necessarily be gypsy jazz, but it will all be slightly off the beaten track."
Wahrhaftig was playing guitar in rock and R&B bands when his direction was changed by hearing Reinhardt's music in 2000. He founded the Hot Club a few years later, since releasing two CDs. They're scheduled to perform at next month's Philadelphia Folk Festival, in addition to their regular appearances at Chestnut Hill's Paris Bistro & Jazz Cafe.
"It seems to be over-the-top ecstatic and at the same time very sad," he says of the gypsy jazz sound. "The guitar groove is really powerful, like a freight train. When you hear it done right, you can't not move in your seat."
Wahrhaftig hopes audiences will take advantage of the Venetian's ballroom to do just that. "Jazz is art music now, but it used to be popular dance music. We didn't set out to do this, but we're taking it back to being accessible, entertaining music."