Cyrille Aimée Is Moving On

The French-born singer has changed her location, her band, and her musical focus—with a little help from Stephen Sondheim

Cyrille Aimee by Noé Cugny
Cyrille Aimee (photo: Noé Cugny)

Standing on the stoop of her three-story apartment building in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, on a warm, late August day, Cyrille Aimée is grinning. She is all Gallic charm, with her flowing mane of brown curls, her floral-print sundress and her open, inviting smile. When she speaks in softly accented English, she’s like a whiff of France in the middle of working-class Brooklyn.

She’s talking fondly about the not-yet-gentrified neighborhood, her primary residence until recently, and about her latest album, Move On, her fourth for the Mack Avenue label. The title could hardly be more appropriate: The 34-year-old French-born jazz singer has, in fact, moved on, in every way possible, and she seems relaxed and happy about it.

For one thing, after a decade spent forging a jazz career in New York, she made the move to her new favorite city, New Orleans, two years ago. (She keeps the Sunset Park apartment for when she visits her old stomping grounds, renting it out when she’s not there.)

At the same time, she ended an intense romantic relationship. In Move On’s liner notes, she thanks the man in question “for making me feel all these intense emotions of love, heartbreak, hope, pain and happiness, without which I would never have been able to create this album.”

And she has moved on professionally. Her highly acclaimed quintet, after five years together, playing countless dates at clubs and jazz festivals around the world, disbanded last year, leaving her free to embrace the biggest challenge of her young career: tackling the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. Move On is subtitled “A Sondheim Adventure.”

Twirling her hair as we talk over cups of herbal tea at the breakfast bar of her old kitchen, she tells me about her several encounters with Sondheim, considered the greatest living American theater composer and lyricist. The most recent one was at her gig at New York’s Birdland last February, when she performed the Move On songs live for the first time.

Sondheim, sitting at a ringside table, took it all in. Greeting the young singer afterward, he made a remarkable admission. “He said to me, ‘You made me feel like a composer for the first time,’” Aimée says, her eyes widening at the memory. The remark was later confirmed to me by her friend and the album’s co-producer Assaf Gleizner, who played piano and keyboards that night.

What might he have meant? He’s Stephen Sondheim. Composer of Sweeney Todd, Company, Into the Woods, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and other great musicals, not to mention a half-dozen film scores; recipient of accolades including the Kennedy Center Honors and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. How could he not feel like a composer? Perhaps it’s the lingering effect of having been more celebrated for his lyrical wizardry than for his music. Perhaps it’s the bad rap his melodies have taken over the years (mostly from people who can’t carry a tune) for not being the sort you can whistle while leaving the theater. Or perhaps it’s the relative paucity of covers of his songs—especially by jazz artists—compared to more traditional Broadway composers.

Whatever the cause of Sondheim’s insecurity about his place in the pantheon of American composers, his remark is a testament to Aimée’s achievement in reimagining the songs and making them live outside the original dramatic context of his musicals.

Allen Morrison

Allen Morrison is a music journalist, musician, jazz critic, lecturer, and a regular contributor to JazzTimes and 
DownBeat. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, Jazziz, American Songwriter, and Departures. He lectures frequently on jazz history aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. Before becoming a full-time journalist, Allen worked as a music publicist and a pianist. He is working on a book on how musicians and non-musicians hear music. He maintains a blog at AllenMorrison.com.