Cyrille Aimée, the ebullient embodiment of pure sunshine in 21st-century vocal jazz, was lolling in a hammock Monday afternoon charging up with photons on the deck of her self-designed house in the rainforest of Costa Rica.
She’ll need every erg when she brings her vocal artistry to eternally gray mid-Michigan for a gig at the Wharton Center on March 30. Then comes a grueling five-day, two-show-per-night run at New York City’s Birdland Jazz Club in mid-April, preceded by a gig in Fairbanks, Alaska.
With an open kitchen and living room, fluffy pillows on the wooden floor and a terrace that seems to float in the tropical sun, it’s hard to tell where Aimée’s airy house ends and the sunlit hillside begins.
“There are almost no walls,” she said. “Only in the recording studio and the bathroom.”
Aimée first traveled to Costa Rica eight years ago to visit a friend, and she fell in love with the world’s richest patch of biodiversity.
“During the pandemic, this house was my creative outlet,” she said. “I was my own architect and project manager. It was hard work and an incredible experience. I designed it with all my heart, and it’s like a sculpture.”
At the Wharton Center, she’ll perform original songs from her upcoming album, “Inside and Out,” many of them inspired by the house, the rainforest and its inhabitants, including her neighbor’s dog, “a really fun little guy.”
Her old apartment in Brooklyn is a rental now. She still enjoys New York, but she’s glad she doesn’t have to stay there.
While resting from a tour, or getting ready for one, she soaks up silence as well as sunshine.
“It’s a different kind of silence because actually, the jungle is very loud, a lot of bugs and birds,” she admitted. “But once that silence sets in, I finally hear what wants to come from me, from within me.”
Aimée, 38, puts real juice into the dusty old phrase “a citizen of the world.” She grew up in Samois-sur-Sein, near Fontainebleau, France. Her father is from France, and her mother is from the Dominican Republic. She also enjoys spending time in a small house in New Orleans.
“I’ve never lived anywhere fully,” she said. “I tour, I have friends everywhere in the world, and my family lives on the other side of the ocean.”
She’s bringing an all-New Orleans band to East Lansing next week, with razzle-dazzle pianist Shea Pierre, bassist and composer Amina Scott and virtuosic Portugese-born drummer and percussionist Pedro Segundo.
Aimée’s playlist has fewer walls than her house. The band’s stylings will range from originals and jazz standards to French songs, traditional Mexican songs, a Stevie Wonder ballad and more.
Aimée’s joyful, playful voice has brightened up countless jazz classics and Tin Pan Alley standards in her day, but her 2019 album, “Move On: A Sondheim Adventure,” gave her a chance to explore darker territory. While the old standards bounce jauntily over the bumpy road to love, Sondheim reaches in and tears your guts out.
“Every time I sang those songs, I learned something new about myself by being really open to what the lyrics stirred up inside me,” she said.
In a multi-layered, inventively costumed-and-edited video for Sondheim’s “Marry Me a Little,” Aimée’s split-second, panicky glances hint that she is well aware of the heavy door of commitment, and the abyss of mortality, beyond.
“That dark side is something I have, like everyone,” she said. “I grew up and built my career singing standards. It’s beautiful and romantic, but after a while, they all kind of tell the same story. I just love the realness of Sondheim’s lyrics. You can relate more to it in today’s world, and that inspired me in writing my own songs.”
Aimée’s forthcoming album is a close collaboration with New York producer Jake Sherman, a pianist with a jazz background. The title track channels Joni Mitchell, with looping trails of melody that gently disorient you, only to bring you back to your own footprints. The lyrics hint at deep inner growth: “There is something growing in me, taking up the space inside me.”
Aimée and Sherman lovingly layered the tracks in Sherman’s home studio.
“We looked for the right sound for hours,” Aimée said. “Jake is all about the music. Sometimes I took a nap under the piano.”
First, Aimée would bring a fully written song for Sherman to hear. They recorded a “click track” (a foundation track to synchronize the timing) with Aimée on guitar or mandolin. Next, Sherman added keyboard (electric, acoustic or organ, depending on the song) and Aimée sang the lyrics over that.
The fairy dust descended when Sherman asked Aimée to do a second take. She scat-sang the whole way through.
He then used Aimée’s improvisatory flights as a template for his orchestrations.
“He would say, ‘What you did there is a horn line,’ or ‘that’s a string part.’ It was such a cool way to produce,” Aimée said. “We don’t use scat singing on the record. It’s not a jazz album, but my improvisational ideas are in the horns, in the cello, guitar, clarinet, everywhere.”
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