Cyrille Aimée’s Rekindled Energy

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For Move On: A Sondheim Adventure, vocalist Cyrille Aimée selected a bevy of Stephen Sondheim compositions she felt resonated with her own experiences.

(Photo: Noé Cugny)

As she sat in a rocking chair sipping tea on the front porch of her New Orleans apartment on a recent rainy morning, singer Cyrille Aimée reflected on the major changes she’d made in her musical career and personal life during the previous 18 months.

“2017 was a crazy time for me,” she said. “I broke up my band and with my boyfriend, and I decided to leave New York after 10 years there and move to New Orleans. And during that time, I was also trying to work on my new album, which was all songs by Stephen Sondheim.”

Breaking up the band she had worked with for four years involved ending a romantic relationship with Michael Valeanu, who played guitar and contributed arrangements and compositions to Aimée’s Mack Avenue albums It’s A Good Day, Let’s Get Lost and Live.

“I loved my band,” she continued. “But the music we were playing was all about the band sound on our recordings, and it was the band sound that counted most. And I really knew I wanted to move away from that and focus more on songs and lyrics—with a variety of orchestration possibilities for different songs in everything I did.”

The French native’s decision to move to New Orleans initially was motivated by a visit there three years ago with friends, a trip that left her with an appreciation of the city’s unique culture and a strong attraction to its fertile music scene.

“When I first came here, I fell in love with the place,” Aimée, 34, said. “I had traveled across the U.S. many times, but this was really different. And the music scene was very different from New York. Here in New Orleans, music is fun. And in New York, it’s more about the mind over the heart—the drive to be the best. You have a tendency to forget that music is fun. Moving here helped me find my gypsy energy again.”

Aimée’s reference to “gypsy energy” nods to her most lasting musical influence while growing up in the village of Samois-sur-Seine. The town is the site of an annual music festival honoring the guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910–’53), who moved there in 1951.

“Every June in the village, they hold a festival named after Django Reinhardt,” she said. “Bands of gypsies come from all over and camp out for the week of the festival. I used to sneak out at night and go to hear the gypsies play their music, and that’s when I first fell in love with jazz. There was a real feeling of freedom in the music and the improvisation of the musicians. That was when I knew that I wanted to be a jazz singer.”

Aimée’s dream of becoming a jazz singer has taken her around the world. That path now has led to New Orleans, to a less band-defined, more individual musical focus, and to the challenge of recording the new album Move On: A Sondheim Adventure (Mack Avenue). And that path is rooted in her early experiences hearing and singing Reinhardt-style “gypsy” jazz; and the inspiration it gave her to improvise her own path as a professional musician.

As she grew older, Aimée’s musical path took her to Paris, where she enrolled in the American School of Modern Music and began to perform with friends on the streets of the city, eventually playing small clubs.

At age 19, Aimée sent a video of herself singing to Star Academy, a French TV show similar to American Idol. She was one of 16 finalists chosen from more than 5,000 applicants. But just before the first show was to air, she was told to sign a restrictive contract that dictated exactly what songs she could perform. Because she wouldn’t be able to sing jazz, Aimée refused, creating a media controversy with her decision.

More determined than ever to pursue a career in jazz, Aimée left France and enrolled in the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York. Located 30 miles from New York City, SUNY–Purchase proved to be an ideal location for an up-and-coming jazz vocalist. At the university, she met musicians such as keyboardist Assaf Gleizner and trumpeter Wayne Tucker, both of whom she would work with repeatedly in the ensuing years.

Aimée soon began to sit in and eventually get regular gigs in New York at clubs like Smalls, but her first major break came back in Europe during 2007, when she was named the winner of a jazz vocal competition presented by the Montreux Jazz Festival.

The prize included financing and studio time for a recording, and the result was her 2008 debut, Cyrille Aimée And The Surreal Band, recorded in Switzerland.

“I convinced some of my musician friends to take a backpacking trip to Europe in 2006, and we busked in cities we visited,” she recalled. “We went back again in the summer of 2007, but that time we decided to contact jazz festivals and see if we could play in exchange for a place to stay and meals. I also took a chance and entered the Montreux competition, and I got to do my first recording.”

Things began to happen quickly upon her return to the States. Aimée recorded a 2009 duo album, Smile, with Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo, and followed with a 2010 album, Live At Smalls (SmallsLIVE), which featured trumpeter Roy Hargrove, tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm and pianist Spike Wilner.

That same year, Aimée placed third in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Vocal Competition. Aimée released another duet album with Figueiredo, Just The Two Of Us (Venus), and further established her credentials by winning the inaugural Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2012.

Aimée signed with Mack Avenue Records and released her debut album for the label, It’s A Good Day, in 2014. But an earlier event, in November 2013, would lay the foundation for her love of Sondheim’s music: a theatrical show in New York that included 24 of his compositions.

The production, A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair, was a coproduction of New York City Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center. It featured the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra backing Aimeé and Broadway performers such as Bernadette Peters and Norm Lewis.

“I discovered Sondheim when I did that show with Bernadette Peters,” Aimée recalled. “And after that experience, I thought, ‘Wow I want to get deeper into his repertoire.’ I ended up doing one of his songs that I sang in that show, ‘Live Alone And Like It,’ on my Let’s Get Lost record, but I wanted to cover more.

“Sondheim’s songs just grabbed me,” Aimée continued. “They are very today, very modern, and are easy to relate to. It seemed super strange to me that jazz musicians weren’t playing more of his songs, since they are melodically incredible and so rich in harmony.

“I knew that one of the things I wanted to do at some point was to record a whole album of Sondheim songs. So, I wanted to see what other songs he had that might work for me. I started by looking online. But I couldn’t find many recorded versions of his songs that I really liked. Except for Bernadette Peters, I thought the other versions of his songs done by Broadway singers didn’t appeal that much to me. I wanted to hear the melody without really being yelled at.”

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