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)

Aimée then acquired a four-volume set of Sondheim’s music and studied the songs to find material that would fit her vocal style.

“I went through all his songs,” she said. “And I especially paid attention to the lyrics. I marked the ones that really connected with me. Then I went through everything I had marked and made a smaller list. After that, I went online and listened to the versions of those songs, then cut the list even more based on that. ”

Aimée actually began the process of choosing songs for her Sondheim project before she decided to break up her band, end her relationship and move to New Orleans. After those events took place, she began to view the songs she had chosen in a new light.

“When I originally chose them, it was before all this crazy stuff happened,” she explained. “Then, when I was finally here in New Orleans and began seriously working on the songs, I discovered that they were really about me.

“When I first chose all the songs, I deliberately didn’t watch videos any of Sondheim’s Broadway shows. I didn’t want to be influenced by what the songs meant in those shows. I wanted it to be my own interpretation. And it turned out that the songs I chose were a reflection of my story—everything that happened to me then. It turned out to be a really amazing way for me to move on.” The next step in the process was developing appropriate arrangements for the tunes. Aimée knew she didn’t want to use the same instrumentation for the entire program. She wanted to place each song in a setting that would work for that individual melody and set of lyrics.

“I wanted it to be orchestrated to add different colors for the songs on the record by varying the size and instrumentation of the backing groups for each one,” she said. “And I knew someone I met at SUNY–Purchase and who had played on my first album, Assaf Gleizner. He was actually working in the Broadway world, but still played jazz. So, he had one foot in each world.”

“Sondheim is one of my favorite composers,” Gleizner said in a phone interview. “So when Cyrille contacted me, of course I said yes. We agreed that we needed to avoid the trap that people can fall into when they try to ‘jazz up’ musical theater songs by taking the song and making it swing. So, we asked ourselves, ‘Imagine if someone like Dexter Gordon was alive today. If he was walking out of a performance of Sunday in the Park with George, what would inspire him to put one of the songs on his next record with Kenny Drew?’ That’s kind of what we were looking for.”

Aimée and Gleizner worked through each song, and discussed not only specific instrumentation for each, but thoughts about specific musicians to play on the recording.

“For example, if we agreed that we needed a gypsy guitar on a song or a trumpet solo on another, we knew the musicians who could play that,” Gleizner said. “So, we ended up using quite a few different musicians to maximize the potential of each song.”

After listening to the final mixes, both Aimée and Gleizner were pleased. But they wondered how others—especially Sondheim himself—would react. Aimée sent a copy to Sondheim, and after returning from a trip to Europe, he replied.

“Here’s what Stephen wrote back,” Aimée said during a follow-up phone interview. “He said, ‘I finally had a chance to sit down uninterrupted and listen to your album today, and it’s just terrific, not just you but the band and the arrangements. Congratulations.’ It was so wonderful that he likes it.”

During the phone interview, Aimée was clearly looking forward to performing the Sondheim songs on a U.S. tour that started in February at Birdland in New York.

In addition to the new album and tour, Aimée is focused on taking the opportunity to perform as much as possible in her new hometown whenever she’s not on the road.

“I had no issues connecting with local musicians here,” she said. “There’s really a lot of energy around the music scene. I’ve been sitting in at different clubs and I’ve also started a monthly series here at a club called SideBar NOLA. I’m going to be playing in a duo with Nicholas Payton tonight, and we’re getting together this afternoon to rehearse.”

Judging by the performance that night at SideBar, the rehearsal must have gone well. Payton, alternating between Fender Rhodes, trumpet and acoustic bass, accompanied Aimée’s vocals for a crowd that entirely filled the small club and had people standing outside the doors just to hear the music.

The set featured plenty of standards, such as “After You’ve Gone,” “All Of Me” and “How Deep Is The Ocean?” The approach the two musicians took was fresh, featuring plenty of scatting from Aimée and strong solos by Payton as he moved smoothly among instruments.

During the second set, Aimée used a looper to record vocal tracks, play them back and scat over them as Payton crafted a funk groove that brought the crowd to its feet.

During a phone interview, Payton talked about his performances with Aimée in New Orleans: “The first time I played with Cyrille was November last year with Trumpet Mafia in tribute to Roy Hargrove,” Payton recalled. “We kept in touch after that, and she invited me to play with her at SideBar, and I really enjoyed that. We just did another duo performance in early February, and that went well, too.

“Cyrille is a complete musician,” Payton added. “What she does with the looper is entertaining, sure, but the fact that she hears all the parts orchestrally is pretty brilliant. She’s also a true improviser, which is rare these days. Her processing speed is fast, so when she hears something, she can jump on it and take it to another level instantaneously.”

New Orleans seems like the perfect place for Aimeé to reside.

“Music is such a vital part of life here,” she said. “It’s a necessary part of life in New Orleans—like eating and sleeping. There’s a deep emotion in the music that comes through very strong. And it’s the same feeling I had when I was singing with the gypsies at the Django Festival back in France.” DB

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