“Some people ask, ‘But aren’t you scared in the jungle?’ Well, Brooklyn or New Orleans are way more dangerous than the jungle.”The Big Easy runs at a much different clock speed than the Big Apple, and that — along with the relaxed atmosphere and omnipresent music — was what enticed Aimée on her first visit to New Orleans. The city’s history as a cultural crossroads holds additional charms for Aimée. For one thing, it brings her closer to her father’s French heritage and her mother’s Caribbean background than any place beyond her parents’ household. Aimée’s well-documented roots extend to the hamlet of Samois-sur-Seine, about 40 miles southeast of Paris, where her parents’ diverse backgrounds provided an eclectic musical education. The town also hosts an annual festival dedicated to the “Gypsy jazz” genre created by legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt. Aimée developed her fierce rhythmic authority by first hearing (through her bedroom window) — and eventually sneaking out of her house to pal around with — the Romany musicians who still flock there each summer. After that, she hit the ground running. In her teens, she was selected as a semi-finalist for Star Academy, France’s version of American Idol; she made headlines when she refused to sign over her future in the program’s contract. At 22, she won the 2007 Montreux Jazz Festival Vocal Competition, and in 2012 she won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition and placed third in the Thelonious Monk Competition. Since then Aimée’s career has been marked by a series of increasingly well-received albums; a contract, now in its sixth year, with Mack Avenue Records; and a growing awareness, among audiences and critics, of her sensational skill set. Her pitch doesn’t waver, she has a sweet-and-salty timbre, and a girlish lilt and playfulness that remind various commentators of Ella Fitzgerald. When she scats a solo, she dispenses entirely with clichéd riffs; her improvisations often build to such intensity that she obviates the need for a saxophone or trumpet. https://youtu.be/kwXIjRcTShg?t=165 Above all, she can muster up enough rhythmic propulsion to make a locomotive blush. Jeff Lindberg, whose Chicago Jazz Orchestra backed Aimée on their 2013 album Burstin’ Out!, puts it this way: “Cyrille is one of the few young singers who can actually swing a band. That is, when she starts singing, the band starts swinging harder.” For the better part of five years, Aimée led a band that melded her earliest and latter musical experiences. It featured two virtuoso guitarists, in the Gypsy-jazz tradition — but with one playing electric and one acoustic — and a more contemporary repertoire. But by the time they recorded her album Live in the summer of 2017, Aimée was ready to make changes. She had wanted to live in New Orleans after her initial visit two years earlier, but her boyfriend at the time refused. Now she had a new love with whom to take the plunge together. But, as in a classic Edith Piaf chanson, heartbreak loomed. “We were starting to look for houses in New Orleans,” Aimée recalls. “We were in the moment where everything is smiling at you, you know, and you’re moving to a new city and love each other so much. And right there, he learned that his mom was very ill, and he had to go back to France to see her.” Aimée and her boyfriend’s young relationship didn’t withstand the forced separation, and suddenly the couple had broken up before Aimée had even found a house. “I ended up looking for a place for myself,” she recalls. “And it was really, really hard, because that’s not what I intended to do in the first place. I didn’t know anyone in New Orleans. I had said goodbye to my band that I had been with for so long. I kind of lost all the things that were comforting. I was single, in a different city, different friends, different band.” She felt lost and isolated in an emotional wilderness. Sondheim showed her the way out.
“I realized the songs were really connected to what I was going through. At a very rough time, these songs were saving me.”Up until several years ago, Aimée knew practically nothing about Sondheim’s music. The spheres of jazz and Broadway intersect far less often than they did in mid-century America, and even less so in France. But in 2013 she was chosen to join Broadway icon Bernadette Peters, along with Wynton Marsalis’ JALC Orchestra, in a Sondheim celebration in New York City, and she was hooked. Like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser and precious few others in American musical theater, Sondheim writes the whole song, words as well as music. Like most singers, Aimée gravitated first to the lyrics: “His songs are so modern, as opposed to the American Songbook, which I really dove into for years. After a while I feel like those songs are a little repetitive, always the same metaphors, the same kind of mushy romance stuff. And I loved the fact that Sondheim’s words were applicable to today’s society, that he’s not trying to hide behind fluffy words and pretty words — he’s not scared of using words that are not usually in songs. “And then the music …” Here Aimée offers a half-sighed exclamation, the verbal equivalent of a jaw dropping. “The melodies. And the harmonies — the harmonies are ridiculous, they almost sound like some Bill Evans stuff. And the crazy part is that when the guy who had the idea for the Sondheim tribute told him about it, Sondheim said, ‘Jazz? But I don’t know anything about jazz.’ Which is insane.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0woyE3oTds Before moving to New Orleans, Aimée had already started selecting material for Move On. She chose to avoid watching or listening to the musicals that birthed the Sondheim songs she was considering. Instead she approached each set of lyrics without preconceptions, then narrowed the list to those that resonated on their own merits. Finally she sought out the music. Then, at the turn of 2018, alone and lonely in New Orleans, she threw herself into arranging and recording the material. “I was feeling super low. And that’s when I really started on the arrangements, and it just took me out of my heartbreak — because the more I worked on the songs, the more I saw these songs were about me.” Aimée laughs at the inadvertent egotism of that statement. “I was working on ‘No One Is Alone’ [from Sondheim’s post-modern fairy tale Into the Woods]. I did not know anything about this song, just what it meant to me. And it starts, ‘Mother cannot guide you/Now you’re on your own.’ And as soon as I read that sentence, I started to cry, because it made me think of my boyfriend and his mother. “And that’s when I got really obsessed with the idea that there should be an order to the CD.” She ended up with a narrative arc describing her recent trials and trevails, from “Loving You” and “Being Alive” to “Un Baiser d’Adieu” (which translates to “A Kiss of Farewell”) and, finally, “With So Little to Be Sure Of.” As Aimée explains, “I realized the songs were really connected to what I was going through. At a very rough time, these songs were saving me.” Move On repays that debt by bringing a strong jazz sensibility to the Sondheim songbook, which — with the exception of “Send In the Clowns” — has enticed very few jazz artists. Many of his compositions reject standard or even repeated chord sequences, making them less attractive to improvisers attuned to tried-and-true song forms. Move On does feature solos, but usually one per each relatively short track. Aimée scats on some of the songs and depends on her expressive gifts to elevate them all. She also imparts an improvisational looseness that remains somewhat foreign to Broadway music. Her arrangements have a similar impact, incorporating a variety of sounds Aimée has gathered over the years, from electronic looping to New Orleans street beats, piano trios to string accompaniment, Gypsy-jazz combos to duets with bass or bossa-nova guitar. She gets Sondheim to swing as hard as she does. The discordant love story that underscores Move On does resolve happily. Unlike the star-crossed lovers who sing “Send In the Clowns” (in A Little Night Music), Aimée and her beau have rediscovered their timing and reunited in the Crescent City. “I feel this city is where I have to be now,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, I love New York when I go and visit. I’m totally in love with it. I love it even more now that I don’t live there. But I feel like New York is so rough, and the rents are so high — and musicians are not relaxed. They go to New York to be a star, which is really great for the growth of the music and the creativity. But after a little bit, you kind of miss the raw emotion of why you started making music in the first place — not because you wanted to be a star or because you want to make money; it’s because it felt so good. “And I feel like people here in New Orleans, they don't really care about getting famous. It’s kind of a little secret bubble. You’re just happy making music every day. It’s a city that lives on that.” It reminds her of Samois-sur-Seine and the way the Romany lived and breathed music when she joined them after hours — “how it was really a music of the moment, just about having fun. And I feel that vibe here.” And in those rare moments when even New Orleans seems to be moving a bit too fast, there’s always the jungle. — Neil Tesser Photos of Cyrille Aimée courtesy of Noé Cugny.