By Barry Wahrhaftig
In a perfect world every school kid would know who Django Reinhardt is. Gypsy Jazz, instead of being a sub-genre of a sub-genre, would be as popular as Top-40 artists like Adele. [If you say mention Django to the average Millennial, they will think you are referring to the Tarantino movie ‘Django Unchained’.] Of course we live in an imperfect world, dominated by Pop-Culture, mass market sensibilities. But the true aficionados always seek out the path less taken. So Gypsy Jazz fans, know that Joscho Stephan is ‘sui generis’, in a class by himself. The 37 year old guitarist from Germany can count G.J. Guitar Gods like Tommy Emmanuel, Martin Taylor, Bireli and Stochelo as his fans. His praises have been sung by Jazz giants like Paquito D’Rivera and James Carter. Robin Nolan said “Joscho Stephan is a true rising star of Gypsy Jazz and one of the most ferocious players on the scene.” He has the chops of seminal players like Chet Atkins, and he has taken Django’s original sound and infused it with his own personal style. He can go from burning up a song like ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ or ‘Django’s Tiger,’ to a lyrical take on a Beatles classic like ‘Something.’ He has astounding technique, along with a wonderful sense of melody, and lots of soul. If you aren’t one of his ardent fans yet, one listen should do the trick!
[Barry]. You are from Mönchengladbach Germany, [where you still live], and you were born in 1979?
[Joscho]. That’s correct. I am still living there, and it’s not far away from Cologne or Dusseldorf.
B. How did you get started on the guitar?
J. At the age of 6 I started to play guitar. My father showed me some basic chords. Mostly Beatles stuff, (I am still a big Beatles fan). Then he went with me to the local music school, because he wanted to help me to get a good [musical], education. The lessons were in the style of Classical Guitar, [and to be honest that was not really my idea of what I wanted], but anyway I had classical guitar lessons until I was 12 years old.
B. And you discovered Django Reinhardt at age 14?
J. That’s true. After my classical lessons, I started to play rock music (Santana, Gary Moore etc.), and found out that these players improvised their solos (because the live recordings were different then their studio work), so I got more interested in improvised music. At the same time I discovered people like George Benson and Wes Montgomery. Then I found a cassette mix tape, at my Uncle’s house that had mostly Pop Music (Earth Wind & Fire, Chris Rea etc.), but suddenly I heard the Intro of ‘Minor Swing,’ and was blown away.
B. How were you able to learn the picking techniques and other aspects of Gypsy Jazz?
Gypsy Players like Samson Schmitt learned by watching their relatives and players in their community, [not in formal training of course].
J. Even though I have some Gypsy Roots, (my grandfather was a Hungarian Roma), I didn’t had the chance to learn this Style from my father or other family members, because they never played Gypsy Swing. So I started to listen to Django´s Records, and tried to find every Video that was available at that time (1994) I found ‘Django’s Legacy’, and a Bireli Lagrene Video (together with Babik Reinhardt in a small café), and also a documentary about the Rosenberg Trio on German television.
So seeing these Videos helped me a lot in learning the technique.
B. That’s pretty amazing, that you could figure out the right hand picking from seeing videos of performances.
B. Your debut 2000 recording ‘Swinging Strings,’ made quite a stir. It was named CD of the month by Guitar Player Magazine, and you were just 20 years old when you recorded it. That’s quite an accomplishment.
J. I think the funny thing back then was that I always wanted to play and sound like the other players, but the success of the album was due in large part because I sounded so different. As soon as I noticed that, I changed my mind and tried to sound more like Joscho Stephan, and I think this was the best result of that album.
B. Quite amazing in sound, concept and technique. Built on Django’s 30’s & 40’s QHCF style, but clearly your own take on it. And with perhaps a bit of Les Paul’s retro style along the way.
J. It’s funny, a German magazine wrote the same (that you can hear the Les Paul Influence), but to be honest: I never really listened to Les Paul before I recorded that album, but I think the description is not bad.
B. Hmm, interesting. I guess ‘great minds think alike,’ as the saying goes[!] [I think I hear a bit Of Les and also Chet Atkins in your approach and choice of songs.Your version of ‘The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,’ is brilliant. Of course pieces like ‘Bye Bye Blues were associated with Paul, of course, but they came later in your recordings]. You appeared at Lincoln Center in 2005, at the ‘Django All-Stars,’ show, the series organized by my friends Pat Phillips and the late Ettore Stratta. Dorado and Samson Schmitt, Florin Niculescu violin, played and you were with your trio, which included your Dad Gunter on rhythm guitar. I was in the audience, and I can say that you really tore the place up!
J. My first appearance in the US was already in 2002. I played in Nashville at the Chet Atkins Convention (that was a huge success), and then in 2003 at the Birdland Django Festival in New York. But I remember also the Lincoln Center gig; it was a great line up that night.
B. I think that it’s fair to say that probably stole the show a bit, not easy to do with that line-up! Also, I was amazed to see your Dad playing such great rhythm guitar with his thumb on metal strings!
J. It took me also some time to understand that my father sounds unique on rhythm guitar because of his technique. I think we got a warmer sound because he is playing with his thumb. To be honest: I think my father is an underrated rhythm guitar player. I played with a lot of great players, but I never feel that safe with other players, because my father and I have played together more than 20 years.
B. I agree, he sounded great, and you both really ‘locked it in.’ So let’s talk a bit about your new recording ‘Guitar Heroes.’ Great concept, BTW. I grew up on Hendrix and the Beatles, so it was cool to hear you do songs like ‘Hey Joe,’ and ‘Something,’ in addition to more traditional Gypsy Jazz pieces. The CD is in heavy rotation in my car’s CD player!
J. Thank you very much for your kind words. I think the CD “Guitar Heroes” is still a dream that came true. It´s not just the guest list, it’s the result. If you plan a record with guests and a concept (famous guitar Tunes), it can be hard to realize all the ideas. If I listen to this record now I always have the same thoughts: “I wouldn’t change a single note or song on this album”, so I think that this is the best thing that can happen to a musician.
B. You’re welcome. Very interesting points. It’s not so easy to capture the magic of playing live in front of an audience, especially for Jazz. The CD has a very honest and organic feel, and again, it sounds like you all had great fun doing it! Can you talk a little about how having heavy-weights like Bireli, Stochelo and Tommy Emmanuel there with you?
J. I will start with Tommy, because we have a relationship for many. When he first heard my playing he invited me to a lot of concerts all over the world, and I am proud that Tommy is not just a guitar player that I had the chance to play with, he is really a friend. So it was always a dream to have him on one of my records. He was the first guest that I asked, and when he was in Germany we found a spot to record 5 songs in 4 hours (I think that’s not bad). The next guest was Stochelo; I met him at the DjangoFest NorthWest, and asked him if he’d like to be also a guest on my album. With him I recorded in Dusseldorf, (very close to my hometown). We recorded 6 songs, and finally we used 4 for the record. Bireli contacted me a few months before the recordings via Facebook, so I was not sure if he is really Bireli, but then we skyped together, and he told me that he found out about me some years ago on YouTube and that he followed my playing. That was a big honor, and since that time we chatted every now and then by mail. So after I had already Tommy and Stochelo on the record I thought it would be great to involve also Bireli into this project. He said directly yes, and we recorded also 6 songs, (we also chose 4 for the album). I just want to say to record with them was great: not just because of their great playing, all 3 were relaxed, friendly and absolutely humble in the time that we spent together.
B. Ha, so once again, we can thank Facebook! BTW, I like how you can hear exclamations of encouragement from you guys. It just sounds like a bunch of mates having a blast jamming. Virtuoso playing and yet very soulful. Some friendly competition, and very natural.
J. That´s the greatest thing about the album. It’s risky to invite people into the studio, because you never know how they’ll react. Sometimes a recording could be sterile sounding (because you don’t get the right mood in the Studio), or the opposite: too many notes without meaning. I really love to listen to all my guests on the album, and the best thing is: I am part of this beautiful CD.
B. Can you talk about how you picked the songs?
J. I always thought to do an album with songs that are related to great guitar players. But to be honest when I first was in the Studio with Tommy, I just had the Idea for ‘Blues for Tommy,’ and ‘Blue Drag.’ Tommy asked me to play ‘Seven Come Eleven,’ and ‘Something,’ at the end we chose Django’s ‘Swing 42.’ After that I thought that all these songs are related to great guitar players, so that I thought it would be great to use this as a concept. With Bireli and Stochelo it was the same, there was always the idea for 1 or 2 songs. Stochelo asked me to record Django’s ‘Love’s Melody,’ Mélodie au Crépuscule (a beautiful song), and with Bireli I recorded ‘Breezin’. For my Trio I chose ‘Bye Bye’ Blues as Tribute to Les Paul, and of course ‘Hey Joe,’ and ‘Samba Pa Ti,’ to pay tribute to Rock Legends Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana.
B. What are your top 5-7 ‘Desert Island CDs,’ any style?
1. Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli: ‘Souvenirs’
2. Santana: ‘Moonflower’
3. Beatles: ‘Revolver’
4. George Benson: ‘Breezin’
5. Wes Montgomery: ‘The incredible Jazz Guitar, of’
B. Your playing is so expressive and amazing technically. How much of it is worked out?
[The style seems to demand some worked out bits, especially because of tempos etc., yet your playing always really pops and swings, which isn’t easy. It sounds almost effortless.
J. To be honest: I think every guitar player has some special Licks, Ideas etc. that he likes and that he uses a lot of the time. Technique is not a big problem for me, I worked on that when I was younger (between 14 – 20), but I think the most important thing is; never stop learning new stuff. So I don’t work really on solos at the moment, I am working on new chord ideas, licks, different techniques (it could be a metal riff, a classical thing, or an outside jazz lick). To try to bring all these things together is the most important thing, and also to work on new ideas. But the most important thing is using your ears. Without a good ear it’s really hard to play a good improvisation. Beside all the technique you need the creativity to use the technic, and I think that makes the difference.
B. Great points, well said! I’m sure that you are looking forward to your upcoming February shows in the US, including Feb 12, in Philly, with me and the Hot Club of Philadelphia, and also Feb 13, with my pals from Harmonious Wail in Madison WI. [Make sure you and your wife have warm clothes for the Mid-West [!]
J. Of course! I always love to play in the US, and it’s great to play at new places. And I’ve never played in Philadelphia yet, and I really look forward to it.
B. Guitar nerd question; what kind of strings and picks do you use, and what guitar do you usually play?
J. My regular Guitar in Germany is a Jürgen Volkert D-Hole. He is a German luthier, and he builds wonderful guitars. I use D’Addario Gypsy Strings (0.11) and Big City Picks by Michel Wegen.
B. And who are some of your favorite musicians, [including non-guitarists]?
J. I am really interested in a lot of different styles and players. Just as an example (beside all the great guitar players that we all love): I am collecting Vinyl. So this week I listened to the following Albums:
Chick Corea: Return to Forever
Schnuckenack Reinhardt Quintet
James Brown: Live at the Apollo
David Bowie: Let´s Dance
Django Reinhardt: Best of
Paul McCartney: Tripping the Live Fantastic
Hank Mobley: Reach Out
As you see: Different Artists, Different Periods (60s, 70s, 80s, 90s), different Styles, different instruments. As long as its good music I love it.
B. What are your favorite films? [Hey, I’m trying to keep it interesting]!
J. I just watched the both True Detective Seasons (I think they are really popular in the states), and the Movie about James Brown (Get on up). But [some], all-time favorites are; ‘Some like it Hot,’ ‘Westworld,’ of course ‘Sweet and Lowdown,’ and a lot of others, can’t name them all.
B. Ha, cool. Good choices!
What advice can you give to mere mortal experienced players like me and budding Gypsy Jazz players? I recall on the old G.J. forums they would joke and say that ‘the 1st 50 years are the hardest [!]
J. I think practicing is the most important thing, but it’s not just practicing technique. Work on your vibrato, work on a nice intro to a song, even listen to different music is very important (to get new motivation). I also think that it should be more motivation, then frustration to listen to great players. I think music is one the best things that we have in life, so it’s better to enjoy music then to struggle with technical problems etc. I can do a lot of things on the guitar, but: there are even more things that I am not able to do, so I am not frustrated about that, I just try to learn new stuff all the time, and after I have practiced new things (and I am able to play them), I feel really happy.
Barry Wahrhaftig is the founder and lead guitarist with the Hot Club of Philadelphia. He can be reached at HotClubPhilly@gmail.com for bookings and workshops. The band’s new CD ‘Gypsy Routes, features players like Titi Bamberger and Howard Alden. It’s available through CD Baby, iTunes, etc. For info on Joscho Stephan’s Feb 12 show and workshop in Philadelphia, with the HCPhilly go to http://www.hotclubphilly.com/schedule.asp
Note; We did the interview via email around Jan 25, 2016. Although Joscho’s English is quite good, I did edit a few words in Joscho’s answers from time to time, but only for the sake of clarity, being careful to try to preserve his intent.