Imagine a voice that combines the improvisational artistry of Ella Fitzgerald, the bluesy edginess of Billie Holiday, and the exotic sensuality of Eartha Kitt. That’s the voice of Cyrille Aimée, 27, a rising star in the galaxy of jazz vocalists, who draws on her Euro-Latin roots to produce an unmistakable singing style.
By Sol Hurwitz
Imagine a voice that combines the improvisational artistry of Ella Fitzgerald, the bluesy edginess of Billie Holiday, and the exotic sensuality of Eartha Kitt. That’s the voice of Cyrille Aimée, 27, a rising star in the galaxy of jazz vocalists, who draws on her Euro-Latin roots to produce an unmistakable singing style. “If I hear two notes, I know immediately it’s Cyrille,” says pianist and composer Pete Malinverni, professor of jazz studies at the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music and her former teacher.
In a major career leap, Cyrille Aimée (pronounced “Surreal M.A.”) will appear with her own group, the Surreal Band, at Birdland, the landmark jazz club in Manhattan, for five nights starting on Valentine’s Day, February 14. In years past, Birdland has been a venue of choice for such legendary jazz figures as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Cyrille’s idol Ella Fitzgerald.
Ms. Aimée’s one-of-a-kind talent has not gone unnoticed. WNYC-FM radio host Jonathan Schwartz calls her “electrifying” and “one of the greatest scat singers, on the level of Ella”. The New York Times says she is “one of those singers, whom non-singing musicians call ‘a musician’.” She was the winning vocalist in the Montreux Jazz Festival competition in 2007 and a finalist in the Thelonius Monk Vocal Competition in 2010.
The child of a French father and Dominican mother, Aimée was born in Fontainebleau, France, and raised in the nearby town of Samois-sur-Seine, home of Django Reinhardt, the celebrated jazz guitarist, who died in 1953. The town hosts an annual Django Reinhardt Festival, attracting gypsies from throughout Europe who travel there each June to honor Django, son of gypsy parents, by playing his special brand of jazz. “I started hanging with the gypsies, first, because they thought my bicycle was cool,” she recalls during a break between sets at Smalls, an intimate Greenwich Village jazz club where she appeared last month. “Then I started learning to play the guitar while teaching one of them to read. One day they asked me to learn a song, which I sang around the campfire, and I fell in love with singing.”
Her engagement at Smalls, with the Surreal Band, was a taste of what the crowd at Birdland can expect during Valentine’s week. Wearing a red knit sweater with a scoop neck, matching red sneakers, and navy corduroys, Aimée opened with “September in the Rain”, calling out a finger-snapping upbeat tempo. Her mellow alto voice, rich in color and shading and strong in the upper reaches, articulated the lyrics with crystal clarity.
At the same time, she toyed with the melody and phrasing and bent the pitch in ways that shaped a truly original interpretation. The piece took flight in a breathtaking improvisation with Aimée using her voice as an instrument and completely “in the moment”, a virtuoso scat singer to be reckoned with. All the while, she stayed closely attuned to the piece’s harmonic structure and to the sensitive accompaniment of the Surreal Band, each of whose members — Asaf Gilizner, piano; Sam Anning, bass; Mal Stein, drums; Wayne Tucker, trumpet; and Matt Simons, tenor sax — is a virtuoso in his own right.
Aimée conveys the essence of every tune with body and soul. She often sings with eyes closed, fully engrossed in the music, raising an arm as if conducting or fingering the strings of an imaginary bass. From head to toe, her body sets the tempo, sending subtle cues to the other musicians, while she bobs, sways, rocks, and taps to the beat. She lent an air of mystery to the Dizzy Gillespie bebop classic “Night in Tunisia”, featuring a deeply introspective solo from pianist Asaf Gilizner. She sang “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” first unaccompanied then joining the ensemble in the tune’s lilting waltz. For “Under a Blanket of Blue” she teamed up with Matt Simons, who put his sax aside for a tender vocal duet.
In a change of pace, Aimée tackled the tricky Oscar Pettiford bass solo “Tricotism” as a duet with Sam Anning, singing the melody note-for-note several octaves higher than Anning’s dazzling bass. She ended the set with an exotic, percussion-driven rendition of “Caravan” highlighted by Mal Stein’s tambourine and drum solos, bringing cheers from the packed audience.
Aimée came to the United States to study music when she was 21. Accepted by both the Berklee College of Music in Boston and SUNY Purchase, she chose SUNY “because it was closer to Manhattan, which is where I really wanted to be — and cheaper, way cheaper.” She is no stranger to Westchester, having lived in Larchmont as a child for several years while her parents worked in the New York area.
Her years at SUNY marked a turning point in her musical development. “It taught me a lot,” she explains with a faint French accent (that disappears when she sings). “I was the only singer in the jazz classes, so I was really with instrumentalists most of the time. It opened my ears to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans. It taught me to learn a lot of songs the [American] jazz way, really, because in France, that’s not how it goes. Here, you go to a jam, you’ve got to know your stuff.”
At SUNY, where she earned a Bachelor of Music degree, Aimée studied jazz harmony, a course based on the principles of classical counterpoint, and jazz improvisation, along with jazz arranging and classical voice. She also sang in Soul Voices, a gospel choir formed by Professor Malinverni, who taught her harmony and improvisation as well as piano. “He was my favorite teacher, for sure,” she recalls.
Clearly the respect was mutual. “Cyrille added to every situation by virtue of her openness to any musical experience and her honest effort to use her talents to advance the music,” Malinverni says. “That attitude has stood her in good stead as she has begun what I’m sure will be a successful career bringing music to people all over the world.”