Stephen Sondheim is a composer whose musical theater pieces are not easily adapted to the jazz idiom.
By Sol Hurwitz
Stephen Sondheim is a composer whose musical theater pieces are not easily adapted to the jazz idiom. But he writes with soul and emotion, and last month, in the hands of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, his music found a comfortable groove. Sondheim and Marsalis joined forces at New York City Center for “A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair.” This “Encores!” special event featured two dozen tunes from the Sondheim songbook performed by a cast of four and infused with sparkling big-band arrangements, many by Marsalis himself.
The troupe included Broadway headliners Bernadette Peters (“Sunday in the Park with George”), Norm Lewis (“Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess”), and Jeremy Jordan (“Newsies”). But the show’s astonishing new talent was Cyrille Aimée, the 29-year-old French/Dominican jazz vocalist. Aimée is a rising star in jazz circles: her mellow voice, clarity of delivery, and inventive scat singing have invited comparisons with Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. But she is virtually unknown to musical theater audiences.
Aimée set an ironic Sondheim tone in the revue’s opening number, “What More Do I Need?” (“Saturday Night”), exploiting her character’s love-hate relationship with New York. (“Once I hated this city/Now it can’t get me down/Slushy, humid and gritty/What a pretty town.”). Marsalis’ upbeat arrangement left room for an improvisational romp by Aimée, bringing whoops and cheers from the audience. Aimée’s opener instantly secured her credentials as a singer and actor who can hold her own among Broadway’s finest.
She gave a neurotic touch to “You Can Drive a Person Crazy” (from “Company”), an assault on her lover’s ambivalence toward her (“You could drive a person buggy/You could blow a person’s cool/ Like you make a person feel all huggy/While you make her feel a fool”). She ended the song by chastising her lover, played by Jeremy Jordan, with an ingenious scat tirade echoed note for note by Marsalis’ rollicking trumpet solo.
Aimée’s performance was justly lauded by Manhattan theater critics who seemed to revel in the discovery of a fresh face and voice. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley said he was pleased “to be introduced to Ms. Aimée and her stylish way with a tune.” The Wall Street Journal called her “a young jazz singer whose voice, upon discovering it, feels like a real discovery.” The New York Daily News called Aimée a “revelation”, adding her “voice has so much character that all her songs fly.”
Aimée was born of French and Dominican parents near Fontainebleau, France, in Samois-sur-Seine, home of the legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. She lived in Larchmont as a child, has a degree from the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music and had appeared at Larchmont’s former Watercolor Café. Her leap from obscurity to celebrity is recent. She has won several impressive competitions, including last year’s year’s Sarah Vaughn International Jazz Vocal Competition and is now a regular at Manhattan’s Birdland. Her first CD on a major label, “It’s a Good Day,” will be released this spring.
It remains to be seen whether musical theater will become a new dimension of Aimée’s soaring career. The City Center engagement “was really challenging at first, but then felt very natural,” she reflected in a recent interview with The Rye Record. “I love acting. I have always loved being on stage playing characters, and I hope this won’t be the last time.” So do we.