It’s a downright balmy Friday night in San Diego’s Old Town district, a somewhat touristy area, yet one that retains a certain old world charm. There’s no shortage of Mexican food, margaritas, and cervezas all around. It’s a perfect summer night for the Gypsy Jazz Under the Stars series at the Cosmopolitan Hotel.
A few rows of chairs are set up, while other patrons sit at patio tables eating dinner and sampling the eclectic cocktail menu where the Fresh Fruit Bourbon Smash is like a nectar of the gods, with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, ginger beer, champagne, honey, and fresh berries. Stephane Wrembel and his band are on hand and it’s clear from the beginning of the set that Wrembel is eclectic too, in a spiritual sense, which lends an extra dimension to his music.
The French-born guitarist’s star has risen over the past year since his music appeared in Woody Allen’s acclaimed Midnight in Paris flick. This earned Wrembel a new level of recognition as one of the planet’s premiere jazz guitarists, and rightfully so. But he tells the audience that the music is not so genre specific, but rather more like scoring a film. “Let the music take you on a journey… It’s not about the note but the impression”, Wrembel says before launching into “Voice of the Desert”, which he says was inspired by a visit to New Mexico. It’s the ambient lead track from his new Origins LP and, as on the album, it leads into “Momentum”, an upbeat tune where the full band dynamic comes into play. There’s an upright bassist, a second guitarist, a drummer, and a percussionist with some tricked out custom gear. Wrembel’s chops are both dazzling and graceful, showing a supremely tasteful sense of dynamics. He’s certainly a virtuoso guitarist, but he also incorporates elements of blues, rock, and folk to broaden his sound beyond the jazz realm.
“I like to believe that it is beyond any one genre and that there is something in it for everyone. It’s not only for the rock music lover, or for the Django lover; it’s not only for the jazz lover, or for just young people or old people. It’s for the music lover,” Wrembel said in press for the new album.
The crowd here definitely leans to an older demographic, although one can’t help but suspect that Wrembel’s audience will widen when the jam crowd learns about what’s going on here. The band delivers a number of space jazz improv jams, and Wrembel also comments on a variety of intriguing spiritual concepts. This includes a little commentary on Buddhism, where he speaks of everything being a cycle as way of introducing “The Edge”. This one has more of a old school Django Reinhardt toe-tapping flavor as the set continues in a delightful fashion. This is followed by the melancholy “Tsunami”, which Wrembel says was inspired by watching the footage of last year’s cataclysmic tidal wave disaster in Japan. These are the first four songs from Origins and display a diverse sonic sensibility.
Then Wrembel dips back to his first album for a song he says was inspired by a club in New York City that the band played at every week for ten years, where they had the opportunity to stretch out and explore. This leads to some more great jazzy jamming and interplay. “Back to the Light” and “The Child’s Dream” keep the set flowing, with Wrembel implying that he even remembers being born. Wrembel goes on to note how “The Selfish Gene” was inspired by a scientific book of the same name for “non-scientists” that he calls a “life changer”, by Richard Dawkins. It’s another upbeat tune with fluid riffing as Wrembel zips around the fretboard.
Wrembel introduces “Voyager” as a tribute to legendary astronomer Carl Sagan, whom he compliments as able to translate the wonders of the world into words, forcing us to question our place in the universe. This is also something that great music can do, taking the listener on a journey into metaphysical energies that can uplift the soul or lead to new revelations and pathways of discovery. This might seem like a lost art if one were to judge only by mainstream music. But it’s alive and well in the jam rock scene and it’s refreshing to see an artist like Wrembel keeping the tradition alive in the jazz sphere.
“Voyager” is one of the highlights of the Origins album and of the show, as the musical explorations do indeed seem to take the listener on a thought provoking journey into the nature of the cosmos. Maybe the margaritas and bourbon smashes are partly responsible, but it does feel almost as if the audience has been transported to a spacecraft for a little cosmic sightseeing. There’s also a great drum jam where the percussionists are left to do their thing as a dynamic duo.
“San Diego is a beautiful city and I hope you are happy here, otherwise something is wrong with you,” Wrembel says playfully at encore time before he leads the band through another tune to end the show. San Diego is a nice city with almost perfect weather throughout much of the year, although the local music scene does tend to lag well behind Los Angeles and San Francisco. But it’s hard to think of a better way to enjoy a gypsy jazz show than outdoors at The Cosmopolitan on a gorgeous summer night in Old Town.