Virtually unknown in the United Kingdom, but a household name in his native France where this August the twentieth anniversary of his passing was celebrated by a special concert at which other musicians interepreted his music, Nino Ferrer is best-loved in France for his 1974 folk-rock opus, ‘Le sud’, with the famous front album cover of himself and tropical beauty. However, Ferrer was an astute singer-songwriter and something of a ‘casse-cou’, or daredevil approach who was very much in tune with musical developments across both the Channel and Atlantic. To this extent, there are real parallels between him and Polnareff and both were adept at operating as musical cameleons, though stylistically, Ferrer was less of an album concept artist and more of a singles man. This excellent 3 CD set assembles both his own work on the first two CDs and a whole third CD devoted to others revisiting his songs. This affords the listener the opportunity to hear some lesser known French musicians, including some more left-field singers that are rarely heard outside of cognoscenti circles.
Chronologically, the first CD focuses attention on his early work from the mid-1960s onwards. A gem of a song is the Jobim-influenced, ‘La rue Madureira’, with classical cello, orchestral brass and acoustic double bass and guitar combining beautifully. This is a song ripe for interpretation by jazz musicians. In a funky gospel vein, ‘Moses’ is another terrific composition, complete with wah-wah guitar and English chorus. In fact, Ferrer regularly mixed French and English and saw nothing incompatible between the two. Taking a leaf out of the US Civil rights movement, ‘Je veux être noir ‘(‘I want to be black’), indicates a solidarity with the plight of African-Americans and a song that francophone Africa was not blind to. Similarly, Ray Charles seems to have been a major influence and that is reflected in the reworking of the instrumental, ‘Mint Julep’, which, here, receives a blues-rock reading, while the epic nine and a quarter minute, ‘Métronomie’, is a rolling blues-jazz instrumental with Hammond organ and underpinning psychedelic rock feel on bass and drums that hints at the jazz-rock influence of Miles Davis circa ‘Bitches brew’. The second CD takes us all the way through the 1970s and Ferrer’s love affair with the English language and music culture is all too evident, with psychedelic rock the order of the day on, ‘Looking for you’ and the 1972, ‘Cannabis’, while other titles such as, ‘Mashed potatoes’ (a culinary discovery for a Frenchman, perhaps, and distinctive from the French love of pureed potatoes), ‘Moby Dick’, and even one song devoted to England, ‘L’Angleterre’, speak for themselves.
That Nino Ferrer has long been considered an integral part of French popular music culture and someone who opened the eyes and ears of the French population to emerging popular music trends in the UK and US is strongly hinted at in the range of francophone singers interpreting his music on the third CD. The lushly orchestrated, ‘C’est irréparable’, by Egyptian born (to Italian parents) French actress and singer Dalida (1965) is bettered by the wonderful and distinctively feminine resonance of male Spanish singer Nilda Fernandez on the jazzy big band take of, ‘La maison près de la fontaine’. A real discovery comes from Denis Colin et Ornette (a nod to Ornette Coleman, possibly) on the low-fi and melodic, ‘La désabusion’ and again on, ‘Le blues des rues désertes’, the latter of which has a sparse jazz feel with bass clarinet intro. Their own tribute album, ‘Univers Nino’ (2014) is worth investigating. Among the other creative re-interpretations, Manu Dibango is very much at home on,’Je veux être noir’ (1969), jazz singer Stacey Kent on, ‘La rue Madureira’ with Creed Taylor influenced orchestral arrangements, and an unreleased Arthur H take on, ‘Moses’. A pity there is no essay in French or English on the phenomenon that was Nino Ferrer. Otherwise, a praiseworthy retrospective on his career and influence on other musicians.