A valentine from Cyrille Aimée, whose stunning voice draws on the traditions of Ella Fitzgerald and France's Romani
9:11 am Feb. 10, 20121
“The Voice.” The nickname that a publicist devised for Frank Sinatra in the 1940s stuck for good reason. Sinatra’s cashmere baritone was gorgeous in itself; more important, it was a sound that spoke to listeners, sharing confidences with all the warmth and immediacy of a friend or lover sitting across the table from them.
Cyrille Aimée, a French singer who takes up residence at Birdland for Valentine’s Day week, sounds nothing like Sinatra. Her voice is tart and sassy, with a hint of a Gallic twang. And where Sinatra’s work in his prime could flirt with marmoreal perfection, Aimée’s is all about freedom: exuberant whirlwinds of scatting, a sly, insinuating way with a phrase, or the sudden wistful turn that her delivery of a lyric can take. But she shares with the great man two qualities that can’t be taught: a Voice, an instantly recognizable sound; and the ability to win listeners’ trust, that you-know-it-when-you-feel-it sense that you are listening to a friend, even though you may know them only through your radio or your earbuds.
I met Aimée for Mexican food in her Prospect Heights neighborhood. In baggy jeans and red sneakers, her curls dripping wet, she looked very different from the elegantly turned-out artist I had seen light up Birdland on a slushy evening several weeks before. For all the great-hearted generosity of her music-making, Aimée sometimes sang with her eyes squeezed shut, her left hand tracing arabesques in the air and flying up and down the fretboard of an unseen bass.
“Yeah, I have to stop doing that,” she said sheepishly. “Many times people say to me, ‘You should open your eyes.’ When I improvise, it’s impossible. I’m in my own world.”
The eyes of the music world are already on Aimée. At 26, she has recorded four C.D.s, won first prize at the 2007 Montreux Voice Competition, earned a jazz degree from Purchase College, and placed third at the 2010 Monk Jazz Vocals Competition. The daughter of a Dominican mother and a French father, she was born in Samois-sur-Seine, a small town about thirty miles south of Paris. Django Reinhardt, the Manouche (French Romani or Gypsy) guitar virtuoso and composer, made his home there before his death in 1953. Like the Romani, Aimée is a traveller.
“I was practically born in Cameroon; my family moved there when I was two weeks old.” Before coming to Brooklyn she also spent time in Singapore and the Dominican Republic. Her languages?
“French, Spanish, English—and music.”
Aimée learned the language of music from the Romani. “Every June, Gypsies come in caravans from all over Europe to honor Django Reinhardt at a festival in Samois-sur-Seine. When I was little, I started hanging out with them. They fascinated me—they really, literally, live in the moment. They take every day as if it’s their last.”
Her neighbors and family at first warned her against mixing with Gypsies, so she took to climbing out her bedroom window to go visit her friends at night. When Aimée was fourteen, a young Romani man did what “five different piano teachers” had earlier failed to do: he kindled in her a consuming love for music.
“The big brother of a friend of mine, a great guitar player, asked me to learn ‘Sweet Sue’ because he knew I knew some English,” she recalled, digging into a bowl of guacamole. “I fell in love with singing. Everyone after that called me ‘Sweet Sue’—that’s my Gypsy name.” Her family came around and warmed to her new friends, too.
“Now they love them. I became part of the Gypsy family, and they became part of our family. They would come with their shampoo and towels and make a line to take showers at our place.”
A 1928 hit by Will Harris and Victor Young, “Sweet Sue” has been recorded by all manner of greats, ranging from Reinhardt and the Mills Brothers to Ella Fitzgerald. Its lyric invokes “every star above” and “the moon on high”—the stock-in-trade of tunesmiths, to be sure, but images that seem unusually apt for Aimée. At the Birdland show I caught, she performed Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi” (also a cut on Smile, one of two superb C.D.s she’s made with guitarist Diego Figueiredo). That song, too, tells of wind and clouds and the sky and the sea: places and things that are airy and free and irrepressible, much like the lady herself. As she sang, you could practically see the clouds slithering along in the blue yonder.
That is not to say that Aimée is an undisciplined musician. One beautiful paradox of jazz is its apparent whimsy born of rigor and exactitude, qualities that fellow performers praise in Aimée. Spike Wilner, the pianist and manager of Smalls Jazz Club, where Aimée regularly performs (and set down a Live at Smalls C.D.), put it this way:
“Cyrille approaches her voice like a saxophonist plays a horn—in other words, she can improvise in an extremely harmonic way, with phrasing and bebop languages that you normally only hear horn players doing.”
Jonathan Schwartznamed Aimée his artist of the year for 2011 and dubbed her “a citizen of Jazz,” an honor he bestows most sparingly. “She is one of the greatest scat singers,” Schwartz has said of Aimée. “On the level of Ella. She is electrifying.”
Not surprisingly, Ella Fitzgerald is one of the musicians Aimée most admires. A four-C.D. set of Ella’s recordings was her second introduction to jazz after a Django Reinhardt compilation.
“I feel very connected with her in the sense that she has this huge joy of life when she sings. You feel like she’s jumping rope in a schoolyard. It’s so natural. That’s the way of singing that I love.”
Scraping the last bits of guacamole out of the bowl and licking her spoon, Aimée returned to the notion of freedom. Her burning ambition?
“To make a new CD that really, really shows who I am with more compositions, not a jazz standards CD.” (Smile includes two fetching songs that she wrote, “Good Morning, Cowboy” and “Journey of Life,” an ode to skies unseen and songs unheard.) Asked where she sees herself in ten years, she threw back her head and laughed.
“I hate that question! I have no idea: I’m like the Gypsies. I just live today.” And she smiled when I observed that she seems to have a Buddhist’s deep acceptance of impermanence and change. “What I love about jazz is the improvisation, the fact that you never know what’s going to happen next.”
Cyrille Aimée and her Surreal Band play Birdland Feb. 14 through Feb. 18 at 8:30 and 11 p.m.
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