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)

 

Her history with Sondheim goes back to 2013, when she was tapped to appear in a Sondheim revue called A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair. The show was a collaboration between Encores! at City Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center; Wynton Marsalis served as musical director and led an onstage orchestra. Aimée was the only jazz singer in a cast that included such noted Sondheim interpreters as Bernadette Peters and Norm Lewis. After the show, Sondheim came backstage and told Cyrille, “You made me laugh and cry.”

One of the songs she sang in the show was “Live Alone and Like It,” which Sondheim originally wrote for the 1990 Warren Beatty film Dick Tracy. She could relate. “Just the idea of it—it’s so modern. We live in a society where, if you’re single, people look at you like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ Like you’re sick. ‘Oh, don’t worry, you’ll find someone.’ No! I live alone, and I like it!” The song became the first track on her 2016 album Let’s Get Lost.

“I think his words are so contemporary; they are almost like talking. They’re really honest. They have so much character. Every single time I sing these songs I find something new. You know,” she says, “I came to America to learn the American songbook, and I have a list of maybe 500 standards that I know by heart.”  As she learned their lyrics, however, she began to feel that at least some of them were trite or naive. “Sondheim breaks all the rules and the boundaries. He breaks the rules of rhyming and [including] words that don’t really belong in a song, and it’s so refreshing.

“And musically … well, it’s funny because Sondheim says he doesn’t know anything about jazz. But melodically and harmonically, his music is so intricate.”

At first blush, you might not consider Sondheim’s famously knotty, idiosyncratic songs, full of extraordinary wordplay and emotional subtlety—and not known for their melodic simplicity, to say the least—to be prime material for jazz musicians. And jazz musicians have mostly stayed away. (A notable exception was the 1995 album Color and Light: Jazz Sketches on Sondheim, an overlooked gem featuring Nancy Wilson, Jim Hall, Terence Blanchard, and a final duet between Herbie Hancock and Sondheim himself.)

Besides their intricacy, though, Sondheim’s songs have another thing in common with jazz: Their melodies, harmonies, and song structures are utterly unpredictable. Aimée’s Move On, however, is not specifically about jazz interpretations of Sondheim; it is, she insists, simply about reimagining his music in a more modern setting, not just for her generation but for everyone.

Move On should inspire more jazz artists to jump into Sondheim’s pool, as she demonstrates that the water is fine. The album dives deep into the composer’s songbook, mixing relatively familiar tunes like “Marry Me a Little” (from Company) and “Not While I’m Around” (Sweeney Todd) with gems from unproduced or rarely performed shows (e.g., “I Remember” from Evening Primrose).

As co-arrangers, Aimée and Gleizner have a field day, showing off their versatility in sparkling, sometimes startling versions. For example, “Being Alive” (Company) receives a bravura Afro-Cuban arrangement that allows the singer to show off her Dominican roots, and “No One Is Alone” (Into the Woods) becomes a rolling, 6/8 blues with a Memphis-style horn section. One number, “So Many People” (from Sondheim’s first show, Saturday Night), done in Gypsy-jazz style, features a former bandmate, the dazzling French guitarist Adrien Moignard. Two others were co-arranged with Aimée’s frequent duo partner and another guitar phenom, Diego Figueiredo. And Aimée may well be the first singer ever to scat Sondheim, which she does with vigor and imagination on several tracks.

“When I presented the songs to my musicians,” she says, “none of them knew Sondheim. Things that seemed simple when they first heard it, they found hard to play … When you play standards a lot, there are similar patterns. But Sondheim surprises you. You think you know where it’s going and—poof!—all of a sudden it takes you in another direction.”

Gleizner is an affable young Israeli who straddles the New York jazz and Broadway worlds; he and Aimée have played together on and off since their student days at SUNY Purchase. When they began planning the album in October 2017, they decided to rehearse the arrangements with a band in New York but, once the arrangements were perfected, to record in France.

“She said to me, ‘No one knows about Sondheim in France,’” Gleizner recalled over FaceTime. “She felt that if she used French musicians, it would be more accessible to French people. It was also an advantage that the musicians there didn’t know the songs. They couldn’t compare it to the original versions. That made it fresher, like we weren’t covering the song, but really doing something new.”

The emotional climax of the Sondheim album is its title song, from 1984’s Sunday in the Park with George, his musical written with James Lapine about the French pointillist painter Georges Seurat and his struggles with love and art. Aimée, who knows a thing or two about both, sings, “Stop worrying where you’re going—move on/If you can know where you’re going, you’ve gone … Anything you do/Let it come from you/Then it will be new … ” As if to underscore the point, the last few seconds of the song dissolve into one of Aimée’s patented vocal loops, layers of a cappella Cyrilles, ending on an unexpected, ambiguous chord.

Move On’s final track is a simple, infectious duet with guitarist Figueiredo on “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” from 1964’s Anyone Can Whistle, its lyrics carrying a message of salvation through love:

Crazy business this, this life we live in

Can’t complain about the time we’re given

With so little to be sure of in this world

We had a moment, a marvelous moment …

Recalling the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris, and the mass shootings the following November at the Bataclan Theater, Aimée says, “I remember calling my dad and asking, ‘What can I do to help? I feel stupid just singing on the other side of the Atlantic.’ He said, ‘Cyrille, when you sing you make people happy. Happy people don’t drive trucks into crowds.’

“I think that’s also why Stephen’s music reaches me so deeply—he’s all about that. Giving love.”

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.