Old Is New
One simple rule: when the editor of a magazine drops a subtle hint to a columnist, he better heed it. So when the editor of Brunch handed me a CD she had bought on a recent trip to the US, I got the hint. Translated into words, that gift of a CD obviously meant: “Here, listen to this. Your columns are getting too obscure!” The CD she gave me was a re-issued decade-old album by a musician of whom I had never heard, Stephane Wrembel. I am glad that I wasted no time in listening to Wrembel’s album (Introducing Stephane Wrembel 2001).
Wrembel is a jazz guitarist who was born in France but who lives in the New York borough of Brooklyn. I was in such a hurry to heed my editor’s hint, that I popped the first CD (it’s a double album) in without reading any of the liner notes. The first track reminded me immediately of gypsy jazz, the sort that the legendary Django Reinhardt had famously pioneered. It was no coincidence. The first track of the 17 is indeed a composition by the late great virtuoso guitarist. And, in fact, at least four of the tracks are Reinhardt compositions, rendered in superb style by Wrembel on the acoustic guitar, assisted by a rhythm guitarist and an acoustic bassist. Wrembel indeed, like his inspiration, is a gypsy jazz musician and his music is soothing and uplifting. The two CDs are an interesting journey. The first, as I mentioned, is 10 years old and the second, a year old. But both have the exact same material, done differently. For the second CD, Wrembel replaces the acoustic bass with an electric version, which jazzes up the offering and sounds more contemporary, not just the Reinhardt compositions but also the others—a mix of other compositions, including a number of traditional gypsy tunes.
You listen to Wrembel’s CDs and a gentle wave of calmness envelops you. His effortless fingerpicking style reeks of quiet talent and makes you think that he’s this one seasoned, greying veteran. How wrong you’d be if you thought that. Wrembel is all of 37. He stumbled into gypsy jazz by way of rock music, actually, learning the guitar first to play old classic rock music but then getting influenced by jazz. His understated style and scant media exposure—he plays regularly in Brooklyn bars and sells his CDs after gigs—belies the critical acclaim and the accolades he garners. I was surprised to hear that Woody Allen chose him to compose the soundtrack for his latest film, Midnight in Paris. As for me, I’m ripping both of Wrembel’s CDs onto my iPod for my harrowing commute to work every day.
Just as Wrembel was a re-discovery of gypsy jazz (I heard Reinhardt years ago and haven’t gone back to his music since), June and Jean Millington were another throwback to the 1960s and 70s and a sound that I hadn’t heard in years. The two sisters were born in the Philippines but moved to America in the early 1960s where they quickly ditched the ukuleles that they used to play to opt for electric guitars. And, in the late 1960s, in California, they formed Fanny, an all-girl band that could well be the first of its kind. Fanny played music that you’d call ‘classic rock and roll’ today—nice and loud and foot-stomping. They had three or four hits on the Billboard 100 charts in the early 1970s and opened for great bands of their times—Jethro Tull, Humble Pie and so on. Accolades poured in from stars of those days, such as David Bowie and Todd Rundgren. I hadn’t even heard of them. Till recently, when I read on a music blog that the Millington sisters—both, June who plays lead guitar, and Jane who plays the bass, are in their early 60s—had released a new album called Play Like A Girl.
The dozen songs on the album are a refreshing revisit to the rock and roll of the 1970s. Right from the title track, Play Like A Girl, to the last one, Opportunity Knocks, these are airplay-friendly no-nonsense rock and roll tracks. Both sisters play mean guitars and the album guarantees a good time. I read later that although Fanny disbanded many years back, the sisters had other projects—all of them all-girl—through the years and if they’ve just released a new album, they’re still going strong.
I heard Play Like A Girl and re-heard it. And kicked myself for missing out on the Millington ladies for all these years.