Jazz Notes Intel: Internet Sensation Camille Bertault Sprinkles Magic; Stephanie Chou Digs Into Her Cultural Heritage; Marriage of Jazz and Poetry
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, March 9, 2018
To illustrate how topsy-turvy the modern music world is today, consider 31-year-old rising-star vocalist Camille Bertault, who will perform for two nights at Jazz Standard, March 20-21. Instead of being discovered by a savvy record company A&R rep or a made-for-YouTube video, in 2015 she serendipitously made her mark by posting on the internet a low-tech video of singing prowess. And it wasn’t just any song or any singsong selfie. It was her vocalese version in French of John Coltrane’s hallmark 1960 tune “Giant Steps”—complete with the speedy scat of the saxophonist’s dazzling solo that has bedeviled many a horn player attempting to emulate the harmonics flash of changes. She used Trane’s original in the clip as the background guidepost.
“I just wrote French lyrics to the melody,” says Bertault in a phone conversation from her home in Paris. “But the important point is that I was just being myself, not expecting anything else. I wasn’t doing this as a promotional strategy but just to share with a friend. I’m not a net geek or addicted to it, and I don’t know much about the technology. Close to zero.”
But, once again in this brave new world of getting your music heard, a star was born in the most extraordinary way, in her case by social media. Bertault sent her impromptu performance to one friend via Facebook, who sent it to another. And before you knew it, the video showed up on Jam of the Week and went viral. In seven days, it had 700,000 views. The hits just kept on coming as word spread of her uncanny, homemade achievement. “It was crazy,” she says. “After three days, I was getting messages from all parts of the world.”
Bertault’s takeaway? “Lots of people who are in the music world are afraid of everything,” she says. “But you don’t have to be. You don’t have to follow, you don’t have to be the same. You can work your own projects.”
Born in Paris, Bertault started early as a pianist at the age of 4, taking classes at the conservatory when she was 8 before her family moved to Nice, in the South of France when she was 14. She continued her classical studies there and returned to Paris to get her degree which was thwarted when she failed the conservatory final exam. She also studied music theory, composition and improvisation in the jazz department. “Yes, that exam was important but it’s just a small detail,” she says with a laugh. “As such, that was just a phase in my life.”
The new stage was to plunge into vocals, putting buoyant new vocalese spins on classics by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Rowles and Duke Ellington as well as introducing her own witty, whimsical, mesmerizing and lyrical compositions sung in French. She recorded her first album, En Vie, before the internet frenzy, which gave her Sunnyside Records debut a strong push. The New York City-based indie label run by François Zalacain presented her to the American jazz audience in 2016, which has led to international success and being signed by Sony Music France. The head of that label caught her performing at a Paris club and afterwards talked with her. “He asked me what my plans were,” says Bertault. “In fact, at that point, I didn’t know but I wanted to change directions. Yet I hesitated because I wanted to continue with Sunnyside, but then I thought that it was more practical to make the record in France. But I’m still friends with François. He’s a big friend. It’s like my family in New York.”
The result is her sumptuous and effervescent sophomore Sony Music/OKeh recording, Pas de Géant, which translated means “Giant Steps.” “I had been thinking about all the things that have happened in the last year and I wanted to make a tribute to the beginning,” Bertault says, who notes that her live performances have been all over YouTube. “Doing that internet thing was so funny with so much coincidence. It was a crazy story, but everything has been like dominoes. So, I decided to continue to be crazy.”
She celebrates this on “Là Où Tu Vas” (her lyrics with orchestrated “Giant Steps” music by Coltrane) where in the English translation of her humorous French vocal improvisation, she sings, “Giant steps you’ve done when what you give comes from the heart and not from elsewhere…”
On the remarkable new recording, Bertault joyfully scats, sings wordless vocals and artistically explores her own lyrics (all in French, with only one, “Winter in Aspremont,” in poetic English). Highlights include a train-of-thought run through a medley of Ravel compositions (“Arbre Ravéologique,” or as she calls it: “Ravel is my favorite so I see him in my family tree”), more vocalese beauties from Bach (a sparkling short take on his Goldberg Variations) to Bill Evans (“Very Early”), and swinging through French songs such as Jacques Demy/Michel Legrand’s “La Femme Coupée en Morceaux”). Also of note is her tempo-shifting, two-part piece of music “Comptes de Fées” that she says is about phonies who want to “walk with me, but have bad intentions. The tune has two characters: the singer and the producer who lies and tries to catch the singer, but the singer understands.”
Bertault pays homage to Shorter again (her “Casa de Jade” Portuguese-sung take on “House of Jade”). “I’m fond of Wayne’s music,” she says. “His music is like Coltrane’s. There’s something very spiritual in their music. It’s like I’m not here to show off, but it’s really about the music, which is not so common. Melodically they are so perfect, and they have the genius of Thelonious Monk’s very simple melodies.”
As for the dominance of the lyrics in French, Bertault laughs. “English lyrics, sure anything is possible,” she says. “I love writing my lyrics, but I’m not good enough to write in English. I’m working with someone to help me write lyrics correctly in English. But I’ll sing in English as long as it’s artistically logical. But, really, my only rule is to not have rules.”
SCENE OF THE UNHEARD: STEPHANIE CHOU
Even though she excelled as a math major at Columbia University, Stephanie Chou had already looked ahead to a saxophone career, having played the alto and soprano since she was 10. The native New Yorker was first playing the western classical saxophone canon and then deepened her pursuit into the city’s competitive improvisational circles. But then she hit upon a novel expression for her sax—and her vocals—by embracing her Chinese heritage and using its musical folk and pop legacy to create a unique blend of traditional Chinese, classical and jazz. She showcased this superbly at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium on Thursday, March 8 to a full house.
With her exquisite arrangements, she led her quartet, including the standout of the evening string and erhu player Andy Lin (his erhu solo of the classic “Birds Singing in the Empty Mountain” was a sonic treat), on a rousing and lyrical set focused on her impressive album Asymptote. Chou’s English and Mandarin vocals (the latter more strongly delivered) often exquisitely eased into her alto lines delivered emotionally with only a few gusto moments—after all, this was not an instrumental showoff concert. What was so remarkable about Chou’s performance was its tasty diversity of styles, including her cooking gambol through the trad tune “General’s Command,” the calming “Quiet Night Thought” (based on an ancient Tang Dynasty poem by Li Po) and her playful, speeding tongue-twister “Eating Grapes.” At the end of the set, Chou introduced a new piece, “Manchurian Girl,” based on a 1938 Japanese pop tune that was also released in Chinese. The heart-wrenching yet happily playful song is a part of a larger work based on the Chinese comfort women in World War II. Sounds promising.
THREE DOT LOUNGE . . .
If jazz may sometimes be a hard sell, what about poetry mixed with jazz that runs the risk of listeners rushing to the audible exit?…Even so, last year two jazz/poetry connections aroused audiences to refined verse with drummer Matt Wilson honoring Carl Sandberg on Honey and Salt and saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom paying homage to Emily Dickinson on Wild Lines…But in these desperate times, voices in the wilderness beckon us to come to our ethical senses, which usher us into this year’s impressive poetry/jazz trifecta teeming with tune and reflection…Blues for Memo (Motéma Records) where tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist David Murray, a fierce improvisational blower with a tender soul, creates poignant dreams and incisive critiques with socio-political trenchant poet Saul Williams…The innovative saxophonist Benjamin Boone delivers a special collaboration with one-time U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize recipient Philip Levin on The Poetry of Jazz (Origin Records) released after the poet’s passing…Experimental jazz wife-and-husband team poet Patricia Nicholson and bassist/ngoni player William Parker improvise a shape-shifting narrative of vision stories on their meditative epic, Hope Cries for Justice (Centering Records).
Cover: Camille Bertault; photo: Paul Rousteau.