@ the PizzaExpress Jazz Club
25 November 2018
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Improvisation is not just a technique for vocalist Cyrille Aimée.
It’s a way of life, one that has not only allowed her to share
her engaging voice and sparkling creativity with the world, but
has led her on an unexpected journey.
By opening herself to the whim of the moment, Aimée has
ventured from singing on street corners in Europe to dazzling audiences
at some of the world’s most prestigious jazz festivals; from
sneaking out to sing in gypsy encampments in her native France to
acting on Broadway; from braving the notoriously tough audiences
at New York’s Apollo Theatre to being hailed by The Wall Street
Journal as “one of the most promising jazz singers of her
generation” and called a “rising star in the galaxy
of jazz singers” by the New York Times.
Earlier in 2018, Aimée ended a chapter in her remarkable
journey with the release of “Cyrille Aimée Live”
(June 22, 2018 on Mack Avenue Records). Receiving widespread critical
acclaim from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, this release
served as the finale of her longstanding band while bidding a fond
adieu to the material recorded and presented in the past 5 years
in a live setting. Always looking for the next adventure, Aimée
quickly shifted to her forthcoming 2019 release celebrating the
legendary Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim.
“In my case,” Aimée told a rapt audience
at her 2015 TEDx Talk, “it’s more of a human adventure
than a musical vocation that made me want to devote my life to this
That adventure began in the small town of Samois-sur-Seine in
France, where the young Cyrille Aimée (Sur-real M-A) was
introduced to a wealth of diverse music by her French father and
Dominican mother: everything from Michael Jackson to French chanson,
Flamenco to country-western. She and her sister would dance around
the living room, instilling a gleeful abandon and warm groove that
still shine through her music to this day.
Aimée’s passion for music and inherent curiosity
led her to a discovery that would change her life. As the site of
the annual Django Reinhardt Festival, Samois played host to an annual
gathering of gypsies, and their fireside sing-alongs would lure
the precocious Cyrille out of her bedroom window after her parents
had gone to sleep. Those experiences exposed Aimée not just
to the joys of gypsy jazz, which would go on to be an important
colour in her rich palette of influences, but more importantly to
the gypsies’ spontaneous, nomadic and music-filled way of
It was the idea and unlimited potential of improvisation that
set Aimée on her course and the desire to pursue that in-the-moment
creation inevitably led her to jazz. She spent her teen years performing
in the cafés and clubs of Paris, then attended the American
School of Modern Music there. She garnered her first taste of fame
- or, perhaps more accurately, notoriety - when she was selected
as one of 16 semi-finalists for Star Academy, the French equivalent
of American Idol. When she realised how restrictive the show’s
contract would be, however, she opted to walk away, igniting a scandal
in the French media.
Aimée escaped the spotlight but was soon drawn to the U.S.,
where she attended SUNY Purchase on scholarship – in large
part due to its proximity to the jazz hub of Manhattan. She honed
her skills through weekly gigs at a Soho restaurant and at Birdland
Jazz Club; during that time she also became a regular at Smalls
Jazz Club in Greenwich Village, where pianist/co-owner Spike Wilner
and saxophonist Joel Frahm took her under their wings.
During her early years in NYC, Aimée returned to Europe
regularly, organising backpacking tours of the continent with a
group of musician friends, performing at jazz festivals to pay their
way. At the famed Montreux Jazz Festival in 2007, Aimée entered
and won the vocal competition, recording her debut album with the
prize money. It was the first of many such accolades to come, including
winning the Sarah Vaughn International Jazz Vocal Competition and
becoming a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocal Competition
as well as the TV5MONDE series Talent Acoustic.
Released in 2008, “Cyrille Aimée and the Surreal
Band” immediately spotlighted the singer’s winsome charm,
supple voice and stylistic diversity, incorporating buoyant swing,
French and Latin tinges, and graceful touches of folk and pop. In
the ensuing years she would continue to hone and expand those influences,
integrating elements of Brazilian music, gypsy jazz, and singer-songwriter
traditions. A pair of duo albums with Brazilian guitarist Diego
Figueiredo followed, along with live dates captured at Birdland
and Smalls, the latter featuring trumpet great Roy Hargrove, and
an ebullient date with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra.
In 2014 Aimée made her major label debut with the release
of “It’s A Good Day” on Mack Avenue Records, which
also marked the debut of an innovative new band that allowed her
to explore the varied strands of her influences in a thrilling new
way. Her quintet featured two remarkable guitarists: the contemporary
jazz sound of French-Italian Michael Valeanu and the gypsy-flavoured
steel strings of Adrien Moignard. The same band returned for Aimée’s
follow-up, 2016’s highly acclaimed Let’s Get Lost, providing
a fruitful outlet for her wide-ranging talents as they toured the
world over the last several years.
At the same time, no less an authority than Stephen Sondheim recognised
that Aimée’s captivating gift for storytelling through
song would translate to the theatrical stage. The musical theatre
icon hand-picking her to star alongside the legendary Bernadette
Peters in an Encores Special Presentation tribute to Sondheim at
New York’s City Center in November 2013, backed by Wynton
Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Hailed by the
New York Daily News as “a revelation,” Aimée
has since returned to that venue in another show and is studying
the Meisner Technique, the acting method that has produced such
stars as Diane Keaton, Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall.
She’s also taken to telling her own story to audiences and
students alike, hoping to pass along the same fervor for living
an improvisatory life that the gypsies awoke in her. Beside her
TEDx talk, Aimée has twice been invited to address the Conference
on World Affairs at the University of Colorado Boulder. She also
teaches master classes for aspiring musicians, emphasizing an aware
and spontaneous life - including a call to look up from smartphones
and other addicting devices of modern existence - over technique
and rote repetition.
For Aimée herself, the future holds the promise of many
more surprises ahead - for her as well as her adoring fans. After
more than a decade in New York City she’s embarked on a new
chapter in New Orleans, perhaps the only other city in the U.S.
whose mélange of influences and accents matches her own.
She’s also focusing more intently than ever before on her
own songwriting, taking her music in fresh new directions. As always
for Cyrille Aimée, the only thing that’s certain is
that she’ll find a creative spark and a new pathway from whatever