She is Cyrille Aimée, born in 1984, to a French father and a Dominican mother. She grew up in Samois-sur-Seine, a village nested on the outskirts of Fontaineblaeu forest. There, little Cyrille was cuddled up by her parents’ great love for music and dance, meantime breathing an air of Django Reinhardt nostalgia in the streets. Soon, she made friends with Django’s lineage, the other gypsies living in the town, learning from them the beauty of “improvising with life”, while later on, she would be guided into the art of “improvising with music”, through the recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Stephane Grappelli. And a one-year sejourn in Santo Domingo, the capital city of Dominican Republic, would help her to dig into this art even more.
Yet, she didn’t ignore formal education, and studied music at State University of New York. In time, she fueled even wider attention with her unique vocal style, especially after winning the competitions of Montreux Jazz Festival (2007) and Sarah Vaughan (2012), with a bonus of recording with the Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo. Her musical style, or “her way” was an amalgam of gypsy soul, Brazilian vibes, “straight-ahead” strength and the Dominican blood running through her veins.
And on 10th of May, Cyrille Aimée was here, to make her Istanbul debut at İş Sanat’s concert hall, which was annexed with a pre-concert masterclass held at Bahçeşehir University. So, at last, both Turkish jazz lovers and the local jazz vocals had the privilege of meeting this fabulously energetic music woman in person.
But, for those who regrets missing these two events, I have two good news. First, she hopes she will be coming again. Don’t worry. Second, to ease your pain, here comes a very fresh interview I held with her for you, seasoned with some tasty selection from her music. Oh là là!
Here comes the first song of this selection and the first question of our interview. Enjoy it
In many of your interviews you talk about your mother’s great love for music and dance. Was it her who pursuaded you to take up singing?
Both my parents loved music. My mother is from the Dominican Republic, so she brought dancing to the family. Everyday she put on music in the living room and she danced to it, while my sister and I, we also danced with her. She would put a lot of Michael Jackson, but also a lot of salsa music, cha-cha, merengue and all that kind of stuff. But she also loves country music and flamenco music. She actually got me into French chanson. And my father loves my mom (smiles), so he loves music and dance. He has a terrible instrument collection which includes old clarinets, violins, some guitars, a piano and saxophone; and he tried each and every one of them, but he had no ear for music.
So, you had a large collection at home and maybe started to practice music with them when very young?
My sister and I, we would take one of the guitars and dress like bums, then going to street, we would pretend we are poor and ask for money.
How old were you then?
Like six or something.
“THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO DANCE”
Is dancing the propeller of your singing?
Yes. You know, I had a masterclass before the concert. There, when I started the class, I asked every student to tell me what they wanna work on the most. And a lot of them told me that they want to work on rhythm. They said they wanna groove more what they’re singing. And I told them exactly what you just said. The most important thing is to dance. If you dance, your body feels the rhythm, then whatever comes out of your body is something that makes people wanna dance. The body is our instrument. If I don’t feel the swinging groove in my body then it means there’s something wrong, you know.
How about the slow pieces?
Yeah, it’s a different kind of feeling the rhythms. You get more elastic. In that sense, there’s almost no rhythm, you can flow on top of the chorus for a ballad.
Have you ever taken any dancing lessons or is this a childhood gift?
When I was little, I took some dancing courses for hip-hop and some contemporary jazz music. I think dancing would help not just singers, but all kinds of musicians. Because it’s a quintessential part of the music.
Cyrille Aimée singing “Nuit Blanche” (Hangoever) at Fontainebleau Theater (November 2014)
“MANOUCHE IS FREEDOM”
Can you share with us your own definition of “manouche jazz”?
I guess for me the gypsies have a big sense of freedom. They live in the present moment. They live everyday like their last. And they don’t hide their emotions. So freedom is big part of what attracts me to them and to their music.
You have lived in three different cities: Samois-sur-Seine, Santo Domingo and New York. These places must have had pretty much influence on your music, but in which ways?
Samois-sur-Seine brought gypsies and their music into my life. By the way, gypsies rarely let non-gypsy people in. But, due to my Dominican side I guess, they somehow realized that I’m also someone who can be happy, though I have nothing at hand. So they let me in. Then I realized that I want to sing music beacuse it makes people happy. You know, it’s a celebration!
What my visit to the Dominican Republic brought me was experience. I had discovered the art of improvisation in Samois, and in Dominican Republic I had the opportunity to work a lot on it. I had like 8 gigs a week and learnt a lot of songs. It was very easy to get gigs there, because there was no other jazz singer other than me in the country.
And now, meeting with incredible musicians is the strength of New York. I love to play with saxophonist Joel Frahm so much. There are the guitarists Maestro James Sherlock and Jack Sherman among these men.
Cyrille Aimée and Michael Valeanu performing “Bye Bye Blackbird”, from TEDxClermont held on January 22, 2016
“GOING BEYOND STRAIGHT-AHEAD JAZZ”
How did you make a transition from your sextet “the Surreal Band” to your present quartet and start to work with Michael Valeanu, Adrien Moignard, Sam Anning and Raj Jayaweera?
The Surreal Band members were my classmates from SUNY. We all lived together so that was the first thing that came out of college. Then, I did some CD’s with Diego Figueiredo, with Chicago Jazz Orchestra, and recorded one live at Smalls with other musicians. But it was always “straight-ahead” jazz. At some point, I wanted to do a project with the elements that make me who I am at that moment, mixing some Latin, some gypsy music and some straight-ahead elements. And my favourite instrument was guitar. I loved all kinds of guitars. I loved the electronic jazz guitar, the gypsy steel string guitar, the Brazilian nylon string guitar. So, I decided to have all these three and called Michael, who was in France then, and told him about the idea, asking him to help me with arrangements and everything. So, we came together and recorded the next album, It’s a Good Day, live in the studio, with three different guitars, a bass and drums to these. But, when we went on the road, it was a bit hard to take the three guitars with us all the time, so I gave up the Brazilian guitar, keeping Adrien and Michael with me. And having these two guys was just perfect that I didn’t feel the absence of the third. And that was how the band came together.
And so you could get lost…
Yeah! So came the album Let’s Get Lost after a year of touring together.
A song Cyrille Aimée recorded for the Dominicans, “Estrellitas Y Duendes” from the album Let’s Get Lost (2016).
Can you describe the ideal guitarist for a jazz vocal?
I think it’s a guitarist, who trusts you. Because a lot of times, I guess, instrumentalists, when they play with singers, feel like they can’t do as many things as with a saxophone player for example. Inversions, and going to different areas are among these things. But when they trust you, you can go to other places. The most important point here is working with someone who enjoys playing with you. The guy can be the best guitar player in the world, but if he doesn’t like playing with you, then there’s nothing there.
But you were lucky up to now as far as we know. We don’t remember such guys from your gigs.
Yes, you cannot know about them, because it didn’t last long with them.
“JUST GO TO A DANCE CLASS AND LEARN HOW TO SING”
Do you think that singing jazz can be taught?
Yes, like everything. Maybe it cannot be taught, but guided through. Me, I’m still learning and there are many ways to be taught. Not just from a teacher to the student. You learn from playing, listening, seeing concerts, or like we were talking about, from dancing for example. Just go to a dance class and learn how to sing.
Do you usually hold masterclasses?
Yes, and I want to hold more, because I love it. You know, I don’t read music, so I don’t talk about musical terms or technique; I’m not an opera singer (chuckles). I just teach the participants my own direction in jazz vocal. And yet, there are many other ways to go about it.
You always use your looping machine during concerts. Do you use it just for fun?
It’s totally such a fun. As a singer, you know, we cannot do chords. So, it’s such a fun to toy with this machine to create the chords yourself there on the spot. Actually, it’s harder than singing for me. Because, it’s not like improvising with a group of musicians. You cannot make a mistake and let it go through the flow. Because, when you’re on the loop, if you make a mistake that turns to you every time. So, you have to be super focused.
Cyrille Aimée toying with her looping machine for “What are you doing New Year’s Eve”. A video clip produced by the support of her fans and her mother Charo.
But can’t you also build over that mistake in spur of that moment?
If you are on the loop, it depends. For instance, if you’re doing a specific song that everybody knows, there is no way out. Because every loop is built on top of each other, so if one of the grooves is screwed, so all the others will be screwed.
By the way, we forgot the fourth place you lived for a while. Once, you were in India as well. Why did you go to India, buying a “One Way Ticket” as you say in your song? Was it a quest on the origins of gypsies in their true homehand?
I went there, because I met a guy and we wanted to have an adventure together and we bought a one way ticket to India.
Was it just a musical adventure or some other type of adventure? (with a naughty smile)
It was a great adventure (with a big smile).
Just one last and maybe very predictable question. How about your next album project? Will you be working with your present quartet in this new album?
Right now I’m writing songs, and I’ll be collaborating new musicians.
Any guitar players again?
I haven’t decided yet. First, I’ll make the baby and then I’ll dress it up. I’m still writing the songs.
Hope you come back Istanbul again.
No set plans yet, but I hope to come back.
Thank you so much Cyrille.
I thank you.
“One Way Ticket” by Cyrille Aimée, from her latest album Lets Get Lost.