Up until about five years ago, Cyrille Aimée had no particular relationship with the music of Stephen Sondheim.
Growing up in Samois-sur-Seine, France, she didn’t hear many of his peerless songs for the musical theater; she was more naturally immersed in global pop, French chansons, and the effervescent gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt, which she eventually claimed as a signature.
Aimée, who won the 2012 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition, has a nimble and agreeable style. Singing in a light-gauge timbre but with brisk command of intonation, she’s a performer with the effervescent appeal of a Bastille Day sparkler, as you can hear on her current Mack Avenue release, Cyrille Aimée Live.
What pointed her in Sondheim’s direction was a 2013 New York City Center production, A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Story, which featured the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra behind a starry array of vocalists. A collaboration between Wynton Marsalis and Sondheim himself, the show largely drew from the Broadway talent pool: Bernadette Peters, Jeremy Jordan, Norm Lewis.
But Aimée, coming more from jazz, delivered a breakout performance in the show. WBGO’s Michael Bourne, who was there, has hailed her delivery of “Live Alone and Like It,” which she later recorded in an intimate arrangement for her album Let’s Get Lost. Another song she sang that night — “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” from the musical Company — opens this official highlight reel from the show.
The experience of singing Sondheim’s songs, which are celebrated both for their emotional resonance and their sophisticated construction, obviously stuck with Aimée. Her next album — Move On: A Sondheim Adventure, which Mack Avenue will release on Feb. 22 — is a full immersion, featuring 14 gems from across the composer’s songbook. It’s the first such focused study in Aimée’s career, and her first album since moving on, so to speak, from her longtime band.
The first single from the album is a version of “Marry Me a Little,” featuring Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo against the subtle shimmer of a string quartet. The song is a romantic entreaty spiked with pragmatic qualifications, and rather than play up the pathos, Aimée negotiates that balance in a naturalistic register.
Elsewhere on the album, Aimée delves into salsa (“Being Alive”), second-line rhythm (“Take Me to the World”) and even ambient electronics (“I Remember”) as well as her familiar baseline of frantic gypsy swing (“So Many People”). Her partners include keyboardist and co-producer Assaf Gleizner (a former classmate at SUNY Purchase) and a trio of versatile French musicians: pianist Thomas Enhco, bassist Jérémy Bruyère, and drummer Yoann Serra.
In addition to setting an ambitious new bar for Aimée, Move On represents one of only a handful of sustained Sondheim treatments by a jazz artist. Jackie Cain and Roy Kral released an album plainly titled Sondheim in 1982; Color and Light: Jazz Sketches on Sondheim was a 1995 release with contributions from Herbie Hancock, Nancy Wilson, Jim Hall and others. A few years ago, a Canadian saxohonist named Bobby Hsu released a well-received album titled City of Strangers, under the banner of A Sondheim Jazz Project. Beyond that, for the most part, jazz has been highly selective with the Sondheim canon, focusing on a small crop of songs — like “Send In the Clowns,” which will always be indelibly associated with Vaughan.
Perhaps for that reason, Aimée doesn’t touch “Clowns” on the new album. Nor does she revisit “Live Alone and Like It.” But she does offer a soft-rippling take on “Not While I’m Around,” the Sweeney Todd ballad that has seen a notable iterpretation by Kurt Elling. Throughout the album she brings an attunement to lyrical clarity that nothing, not even her natural air of insouciance, can displace.
“Passionate as hell / But always in control” is a couplet found in “Marry Me a Little.” It’s a fitting appraisal — as is the part that comes just afterward: “I’m ready! / I’m ready now!” Aimée doesn’t put much spin on it, but she owns that assertion. She titled this album Move On, but it could just as easily have been called Level Up.