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‘Live’ by Cyrille Aimée Review: A Fresh Spin on Old Records

Ms. Aimée’s track opens with bassist Dylan Shamat playing a themeless improvisation that serves as an introduction, followed by a wash of ambient sound provided by her band’s two guitarists, Adrien Moignard and Michael Valeanu, who are eventually joined by Ms. Aimée, humming over them. It isn’t until two minutes into the track that we hear something recognizable as “Well, You Needn’t.” Throughout, she realigns Monk’s angular, boppish rhythm and melody (in Monk’s music, the two are almost the same thing) into something more like a funk backbeat, and makes the whole into an optimistic creation aglow with musical sunshine.

Most of us first discovered Ms. Aimee and Cécile McLorin Salvant around the same time, when the two women were finalists in 2010’s Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Both are tremendously inventive vocalists, but while they have certain obvious points in common, there’s one obvious distinguishing factor: While Ms. Salvant takes us on a journey through the decades, as when she excavates an obscure blues from the Jazz Age, Ms. Aimée is more inclined to transport us geographically, across continents.

Ms. Aimée was born and raised in France, and her earliest influence was the jazz style of the Romany musicians, whose patron saint is Belgian-born Django Reinhardt. But she’s also long been deeply immersed in the rhythms of Brazil and enjoyed a productive collaboration with the Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo. Ms. Aimée is one of the few contemporary musicians or singers who actually has a rhythmic style all her own, largely a fusion of European “gypsy” jazz and bossa nova. And, as we’ve seen, there are also liberal doses of funk, which can also be found on the new album’s melange of two Michael Jackson songs, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “Off the Wall.” There’s very little familiar jazz rhythm, whether New Orleans style two-beat, big-band era 4/4 or faster bebop tempo.

Yet while her high rhythmic style is unique, much of the “Live” repertoire will be familiar to longtime jazz fans, including perennials like “Three Little Words” and “Day by Day.” (I’m not certain in which direction Sidney Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère” moves the compass needle, since Bechet lived in France for much of his life but was famously from New Orleans, where Ms. Aimée now resides.)

Ms. Aimée’s other unmistakable trademark is a penchant for sonic playfulness. A good point of comparison might be Ella Fitzgerald, though where Fitzgerald had a miraculously lovely voice, her main strengths were rhythmic—not for nothing did Lester Young nickname her “Lady Time.” Ms. Aimée can swing with the best of them, but her primary strength is a kind of vocal euphoria, which, as with Fitzgerald, is tightly connected to her gift for improvisation.

Ms. Aimée is one of the few of her generation who can scat not just entertainingly but rapturously. And when she does sing actual lyrics, it’s fairly often in her native language—as is her privilege—and so it sounds like scat to most American ears. She not only improvises on chord changes, the traditional scatting on such numbers as “Day by Day,” but makes ingenious use of electronics, especially “looping,” a technique that allows her to become both background and foreground at the same time on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”

Ms. Aimée also understands lyrics and communicates their inner meaning, which explains why City Center Encores! cast her in two musical-theater productions, the Stephen Sondheim pastiche “A Bed and a Chair,” in which she sang “Live Alone and Like It”—also heard on “Live”—and Cole Porter’s “The New Yorkers.” But still, her greatest gift is the ability to recast a familiar tune in her own image via rhythm and sonics. She treats the number like a home she’s moving into and renovating; the original owner, whether Thelonious Monk or Michael Jackson, might not, at first, recognize his own property, but he would quickly come to love what she’s done with the place.

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