5 Reasons Not to Miss Stephane Wrembel’s Next Jersey City Performance

A legit jazz great sat against the back wall of the front room of Razza Pizza last Wednesday night, in a low chair, strumming and picking a guitar with an unconventionally small hole under the fretboard. Stephane Wrembel began the night flanked by another guitarist (this one with an unconventionally large, loaf-shaped hole under the fretboard of his instrument) and a standing bassist, and as the night went on, other musicians joined them. They’ll do it again tonight (Jan. 28) at 7 pm. If you’re a fan of guitar music, or jazz, or encountering virtuosos in places you might not expect to find them, here are five reasons you should make the trip to Grove Street to catch Wrembel’s act.

He’s an Outrageously Good Instrumentalist

There are plenty of talented guitar players in this town, and you can go into New York City and get your fill of generic red-hot licks any time you want. But a bold, imaginative, stop-you-in-your-tracks lead player is a rare thing in 2015. Wrembel’s playing is a thrill ride. Like all top-drawer jazz players, he’s got that ability to grab you by the wrist at the beginning of a solo and lead you around bends and tight corners, up and down hills and through alleys, before releasing you, exhilarated and a little dizzy, back to your seat. Although he’s able to articulate musical phrases and pretzel-shaped riffs at breakneck speed, it isn’t his dexterity that makes him great. He’s a storyteller with notes, and rhythm is his punctuation. Many of his wordless stories are jovial, and a few of them are sad, and sometimes his instrumental commentary is so goofy that he’ll make you laugh out loud. The only reason Stephane Wrembel isn’t better known is the tradition in which he plays: gypsy-influenced jazz music, much of it derived from French sources.

French Gypsy Jazz Isn’t as Outre as it Sounds

One of the most interesting bands to emerge from Downtown Jersey City in the past few years plays gypsy jazz. Manouche Bag, an outfit fronted by Matthias Gustafsson of Madame Claude and featuring super-utility-man Bryan Beninghove on sax and melodica, performs a Garden State version of the style. (Manouche, or sinti, is a specific ethnic designation among Romani people.) If, over the last few years, you’ve had dinner at Madame Claude on a Thursday night, you’re probably intimately familiar with Manouche Bag, and the percussive, insistent manouche beat: Gustafsson squeezed his compatriots into the corner of the tiny restaurant, and there they’d chunk away, well into the night. The Manouche guys revere Wrembel. All these musicians are chasing the ghost of Django Reinhardt, the Belgian visionary who taught twentieth century jazz musicians how to be fearless on the fretboard. Wrembel probably comes closer to catching Django’s spirit than any guitarist in America. Don’t take my word for it — take Woody Allen’s. Allen, a Django fanatic, enlisted Wrembel to score two of his movies. If you liked the music in Midnight In Paris or Vicki Christina Barcelona, well, that’s probably Wrembel you’ve bopped along to.

This Could be Your Last Chance to Catch Wrembel in Jersey City for Awhile

He’s got a gig scheduled for MoFiddles in Livingston (Feb. 1), and dates at Fada (Jan. 31) and Radegast Hall (Feb 4) in Brooklyn.  But after that, Wrembel and his combo resume touring behind Dreamer Of Dreams, his fine sixth album. He’ll be spending the late winter and early spring south and west of his home in the New Jersey metro area (Wrembel’s operation is based out of Brooklyn, but Maplewood claims him as a resident). Most of those tour stops are sit-down, formal affairs with double-digit ticket prices. The Razza jam session is closer to the loose, hopping-speakeasy spirit of gypsy jazz; better yet, it’s dinner music, so as long as you’re eating or drinking at the bar, it’s free.

The Space is Great for Live Jazz

Back when Razza was Bar Majestic, Beninghove and his pals used to heat it up pretty regularly. Since the pizzeria took over, there hasn’t been quite as much live music — but Wrembel has been here before. He was one of the first musicians to play the front room, which, with its stone walls and stylish woodpile, looks like the kind of place where you might encounter a traveling band of gypsys. The Wrembel combo played through small portable amplifiers that are about half the size of a milk crate, so they weren’t too loud, and since this isn’t vocal music, there was no need to set up a sound system. Manouche or sinti music is played with six-strings unique to the style: Wrembel plucks the nylon stringed “petite bouche” instrument with the little opening, and his accompanyist strums the “grande bouche” with the large, d-shaped hole. The upright bassist mostly used his fingers, but he bowed his instrument occasionally too; whatever he did, he anchored the music firmly.

You Might be Moved to Get a Pizza

Jersey City is full of pie places, and the tendency among those who aren’t obsessed with food and food culture is to assume that one is roughly as good as the next. One dinner at Razza is enough to shatter that delusion. This restaurant deserves all the accolades it’s gotten: the pizza really is outstanding. It measures up to the quality of its sister restaurant Arturo’s in Maplewood — and if you’ve been to Arturo’s, you know that’s high praise. Cheap it is not, and some of the combinations of ingredients are head-scratchingly unusual, but Razza rewards the adventurous, and you’re sure not going to leave hungry. They’ll charge you four bucks for bread and butter, and that’s initially annoying, but what you get is well worth the price — Razza makes its own butter (and its own bread, too), and it’s a knockout. Dan Richer, the chef at Razza, is something of a bread and butter whisperer. The crust he makes is delicious, too. Maybe I’ve just read too many bad European romances, but pizza and jazz strikes me as a logical fit. Especially on a cold night. Put it on your local itinerary.

Stephane Wrembel will play on Wednesday, Jan. 28, at Razza Pizza Artigianale, 275 Grove St., at 7 pm. For more information, razzanj.com.

Photo Kyra Kverno

Tris McCall

For the past twenty years, Tris McCall has been preoccupied with the art, music, architecture, politics, and public culture of New Jersey. For the past fifteen, he's been writing and singing about the Garden State wherever and whenever he can. The Trespassers, his first novel, was released in 2012; another not-dissimilar book is on the way. You can read more on his blog trismccall.net.