CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

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
(photo: Noé Cugny)

 

In the contemporary jazz world, nobody sounds quite like Aimée. Her voice, girlish and playful, has a saucy quality informed in equal parts by French chanson, Gypsy jazz, and bebop. Sometimes she sounds a bit like Blossom Dearie, or how Blossom Dearie might have sounded had she been French, rather than an American in Paris. With excellent intonation, precise timing, and a head full of jazz from Ella Fitzgerald to postbop, she can be delicate and breathy one moment, and swing hard the next. She delights in scat singing, holding her own with her rotating cast of prodigious young jazz musicians.

Cyrille Aimée (pronounced “Surreal Em-Ay”) was born to a French father and a Dominican mother and raised in the small town of Samois-sur-Seine, about a 90-minute drive southeast of Paris. The town’s main claim to fame is that Django Reinhardt retired there; it hosts the annual “Festival Django Reinhardt” every year, attracting crowds of Gypsy-jazz fans, including a sizable Romani contingent.

As a teenager, she made friends with the girls at the Gypsy camp who had come to Samois for the festival. She was fascinated by the Gypsies, their way of life and, increasingly, their music. “The brother of one of my Gypsy friends—his name was Loumpi—taught me to play guitar, and I taught him to read,” she says. “They knew I had learned some English in school. One day, Loumpi’s brother, who was the virtuoso guitarist of the family, asked me to teach him a song in English, ‘Sweet Sue.’ It was raining that day, so the whole family took shelter in a parked bus. Loumpi and his brother began to play guitar, and I sang ‘Sweet Sue.’ And when I saw the connection I was making with them—how much more direct it was than when I was playing guitar—and I saw the smiles on the faces of the whole family, the joy it brought them, that’s when I stopped playing guitar and just sang. I decided this is what I wanted to do forever. After that, they called me ‘Sweet Sue.’”

After gaining some singing experience in the Dominican Republic, she entered the jazz studies program at Purchase College, part of the SUNY system, with a bucolic campus in Westchester County that’s a short commute from the jazz clubs of New York City.

Aimée’s approach to music and her musical friendships were forged at Purchase. “There were 25 jazz students in my class, and I was the only singer and the only girl,” she says. She was accepted on the basis of a strong audition; somehow, they didn’t quite notice that she couldn’t read music. “All the American students had been in high-school jazz bands and could read,” she said. “But I had just discovered jazz, through the Gypsies. And all I knew was ‘do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do’ … so I had to rely only on my ears. And for four years I pretended I could read, and I was just listening really hard.

“I remember one of the first assignments one of the teachers gave me was to buy Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and listen to it. And it knocked me off my feet. From then on, for four years, I didn’t really listen to any vocal jazz. It’s one of the things that made me the musician I am today. At other music schools, the singers are put into the ‘singer class.’ That’s the worst, because you’re not learning all the things that make you strong when you come to a jam session.

“It’s so hard for a female singer in the jazz world,” she adds. “When you come to a jam session, they look at you like [sighs], ‘Oh, we’re going to have to transpose.’ And they see you as just a singer, they don’t see you as a musician. I tell my students, you have to do the work. I did the work. You have to prove yourself twice as much if you’re a girl, and thrice as much if you’re a singer.”

Her friends, like French guitarist Michael Valeanu, are in awe of her natural abilities. Valeanu, a member of her band for five years, now resides in Brooklyn and plays with Aimée when she does her Sondheim show. (They were also a couple for a few years but split amicably; they regard each other as family now.) “She has an incredible ear,” Valeanu said by phone. “Playing with a singer who kicks your ass when she takes a solo, that’s very rare for an instrumentalist. The more I got to know her, I understood that she didn’t know precisely what she was doing … it was more ‘I hear it, it works, I’m going to sing it.’ That sort of shook my world. I was like, ‘Wait, I want to be able to do that with my guitar!’”

Using a “looping box,” which she discovered while at Purchase, helped her develop her arranging ability: “The loop machine helped me a lot, because I can do bass lines and create a groove. I have to do every instrument, the bass line, the harmonies, the beat box … I was, and am, a big fan of Bobby McFerrin. He didn’t use a looper, but he has an album that’s just vocals done with overdubs. My dream was to do that, but live.” While still in college, she met McFerrin, volunteering from the audience to sing with her idol onstage in the finale of one of his concerts. Later, she wrote to him asking for a lesson, offering to pay any amount of money he might name. He responded by inviting her to his Philadelphia home for a day of lessons at no charge.

After graduation, Aimée moved to the city with a group of musician friends, becoming a regular at Smalls in Greenwich Village, whose manager (and later owner) Spike Wilner became a mentor and friend. Traveling back to Europe, in 2007 she entered the vocal competition at Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival and won first place, using the prize money to record her debut album with her first group, the Surreal Band. She later went on to be a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition and to win first place in the very first Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition. Four more indie albums followed before she signed with Mack Avenue in 2014. Since then, she has issued three albums for the label with her quintet, culminating in Cyrille Aimée Live in 2018.

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.