When the workday is done and lights are low, what to do in Paris when flying solo? Time to check out the striking Cyrille Aimée, a rising star in the world of female jazz vocalists. You read it here first.
The Duc des Lombards is one of Paris’ better known jazz venues. It is tiny, and underwhelming the first time you enter, but well designed and the seating plan is well conceived. I have seen Benny Golson, Tineke Postma, and the brilliant Gerald Clayton play here. Nay, I have felt them play here. There is no bad seat in the house. The double bass will vibrate your seat. Drums will temporarily deafen you and tingle your spine. The food is fine, and they serve good libations. Prices are reasonable. As it happens, I literally had one of the best seats in the house. First row, just to the left of center stage.
I’m old fashioned…
I was seated next to a Taiwanese businesswoman/culture vulture who was trying to soak up as much music as possible in her spare time. We were not disappointed. I think you are either born with charisma or you are not. Aimée’s stage presence, her ability to wrap the crowd right around her finger, is something that cannot be taught. Her voice is usually like a cross between Billy Holiday and Madeleine Peyroux, but she is a chameleon and her range is far wider. The daughter of a French man and a Dominican woman, Aimée can speak and sing fluently in French, English and Spanish. As she sings, she moves like a professional dancer. Never an idle hand or foot.
Jazz’s singular appeal lies in its ability to surprise. You thought you knew ‘Round Midnight’? Listen to Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden’s rendition on the CD “Last Dance” and think again. Now imagine Jim Morrison, that bearded boor of a bard, belting out “People are Strange” from death’s doorstep. In your mind’s eye, juxtapose that unsightly image with this….
She knows how to use them…
…and slow the tempo to half-speed. People are Strange as a jazz ballad? Yes, it works. As Aimée carves every word with a loving touch, one might have time to ponder Morrison’s lyricism–if one’s mind can process aural and visual beauty at the same time. Aimée exudes sensuality and she is not afraid to use it to her advantage. The words of Venus Williams at Wimbledon ten years ago come to mind, as she berated the line judge: ‘that ball was out. I know it. You know it. Everybody here knows it.’ Well, Aimée is a siren. I knew it. She knew it. Everybody there knew it.
But who knew that ‘Caravan’ could be so sexy? Or that there is space for a Tibetan singing bowl in a jazz standard?, pictured below.
Behold the bass ukelele and the Tibetan singing bowl.
Aimée has a posse of four well-trained men backing her up–two from France, two from a land down under. Her two French guitarists–one acoustic, one electric–are virtuosic. Her bass player has a playful style and knows how to rock out on a bass ukelele. Aimée’s drummer seems to shun the limelight, the not-so-universal dream.
After the concert I spoke with Aimée for a few minutes and she was kind enough to give me this:
Unfortunately Aimée did not play Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” but instead played Caravan. I have edited her playlist for the sake of historical accuracy. To see what this brilliant singer and her brilliant band can do, go to Youtube and type: Cyrille Aimee Well You Needn’t. Or click here if the link works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLwZQxqV-vE
Aimée’s band features the daring guitarists Michael Valeanu and Adrien Moignard. Her bassist is the affable Aussie Sam Anning and her drummer is the laid back Aussie Rajiv Jayweera. Together, they are a tight, well oiled machine. They take old Peggy Lee and Duke Ellington chestnuts and breathe new life into them. They open up new doors. Here is a selection of Aimée’s recordings:
With her seductive, sultry voice, Aimée can swoon, swing and scat sing too. I have not been this excited about a newish jazz artist since…I first heard Tord Gustavsen about ten years ago.
And ten years after, after seeing him live, I am even more spellbound by his genius. Down at the Sunset Grille–I mean Bar–Gustavsen was gearing up to deliver a bit of his magic. I arrived, after work, a bit later than I had hoped. The concert was due to begin at 8 pm but this is France so that really means 8:30. I got there at about 8:15 and was literally the last person seated–if that’s the word–in a room that would hold, according to fire code standards in Canada, no more than 50 people. There were at least 200 of us, maybe 250. It was sweltering because of course there was no air conditioning and no fans either. I was literally pinned and wriggling on the wall, squeezed between two rows, perpendicular to the stage, but no more than 15 feet away from the piano. OK, I said, it will be worth it. But then a nice French couple to my left informed me that two of the four members of the Tord Gustavsen Quartet were stranded in northern Norway, having missed their flight to Oslo and therefore to Paris as well. Needless to say, most of the people I spoke with were wondering what was in store.
Sometimes less is more. Given the ‘coziness’ of this club, this was perhaps a blessing in disguise. Would there really have been room, sonically, for a double bass and tenor sax? In any case, in walked two bald, smart dressed men, in black. Tord Gustavsen on piano, and the genius that is Jarle Vespestad on drums. Gustavsen was apologetic but he promised to make the best of the situation. After all, he was recording live on radio. He did not disappoint. He played many familiar tunes from his six ECM discs, with a focus on his most recent, “Extended Circle.” My favourite was “Left Over Lullaby No. 3,” from the CD “Restored, Returned.” He also tipped his hat to Paris with an impromptu encore of Parisian can-can.
Being perhaps 10 feet from Vespestad, I was transfixed by his creative use of brushes, sticks and…dishcloths. Yes, dishcloths and other devices to alter the sound of his drums. Vespestad carried the bass notes with his feet, Ray Manzarek style. Many of us are familiar with the duets of Paul Bley (piano) and Gary Peacock (bass) or Bley and Steve Swallow (electric bass) or maybe Bill Evans (piano) and Jim Hall (guitar). But piano and drums? That is very rare indeed. But it works, especially when two of jazz’s greatest musicians are put under the gun and forced to sit and deliver. Miles Davis implored his band mates to focus not just on the notes, but the space between the notes. With their sparse, laconic playing, Gustavsen and Vespestad make every note count. Every single note. Spellbinding! The audience demanded, and got, three encores. We would have got more, but there was a second show at 10 pm…
The day before I left, I popped in to one of my favourite little music shops, the retail outlet of the great label, Harmonia Mundi. I dropped about 80 euros on some CDs and SACDs and as I was paying I remarked that the Harmonia Mundi recording of Ravel’s Piano Trio by the Trio Wanderer that was playing was particularly good (HMA 1951967). And voilà, the kind manager of the store put a freebie copy in my bag. These guys know their music and the customer service is nonpareil.
It was almost a perfect trip. If only I had not found out about this concert, the night before I left for Londontown, below at the Olympia… Too late to get tickets, but I tried. There were no scalpers to be found….
In my next instalment, London is calling… I report from the famed club, Ronnie Scott’s.