Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tribute to the Sparrow

A Tribute to Edith Piaf
Live at Montreux 2004
Eagle Eye Media

For some, Edith Piaf is associated with drug addiction, prostitution, and the criminal element of the Parisian red-light district, and that is just how her fans remember her. Those less devoted to the chanteuse perceive her time during the German occupation to be a little too comfortable for comfort. All of which frankly reinforces her status as a French icon. To celebrate her legacy, Claude Nobs assembled a diverse group of vocalists for an engaging Tribute to Edith Piaf at the 2004 Montreux Jazz Festival (not tied into any particularly significant anniversary in her career).

The music of the Piaf tribute blends jazz with the cabaret French chanson music Piaf mastered. Backing up the rotating cast of vocalists is quartet of French jazz musicians led by Baptiste Trotignon on piano, with André Ceccarelli on drums, Marc Berthoumieux on accordion, and bassist Remi Vignola. While not well known in America, all have played extensively in Europe, particularly Ceccarelli, who has frequently recorded as a leader and as a sideman with artists like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Biréli Lagrène, and Martial Solal. They start the set with two instrumentals, including “Under the Paris Sky,” a sophisticated swinger featuring Berthoumieux’s accordion, nicely capturing the late-night café vibe of Piaf’s milieu.

Oddly, the first vocalist to pay tribute to the chanteuse is a man, Swiss cabaret and theater performer Michael von de Heide (keep any unkind stereotypes to yourself), who does wring a lot of drama out of “Mon Dieu.” Ute Lemper follows in what was probably a programming error. Her “L’Accordeoniste” is a killer that swings hard and could have easily been the climatic number. Throughout her mini-set she shows the affinity between Piaf songbook and the Weill lieder for which she is known.

A nice change of pace comes in Barbara Morrison’s “Autumn Leaves,” an unabashedly jazz rendition, with Trotignon getting a nice solo blow. Morrison has an appealing voice, which the musicians visibly respond to. Piaf preferred Johnny Mercer’s lyrics adapted from Jacque Prevert’s original French, so it is the only English heard in the concert.

Evidently, singer-actress Catherine Ringer’s credits include French adult films and a Godard picture, which arguably makes her a fitting participant for an evening of Piaf. Interestingly, she gravitated to Piaf’s earthier repertoire, like the sailor’s tune “C’est a Hambourg” and “Poor John’s Ballad,” which has the air of a good drinking song. As probably the biggest star, Angelique Kidjo gets the final mini-set, the highlight being “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” a nice combination of Kidjo’s powerful voice and the elegantly romantic sound of Berthoumieux’s accordion. “La Vie En Rose,” Piaf’s signature tune, is not heard until the collective finale performance, which unfortunately dilutes its impact.

Obviously, Tribute is a very French affair. Though a bit uneven, it has some very entertaining performances, even for someone who did not come in brimming with love for Piaf.