Various ‘Très Chic. French cool from Paris to the Côte d’Azur’ 2CD (Union Square) 4/5

Très ChicRetro French music is very much in vogue on this side of the Channel and Union Square have sought to capitalise on this by releasing this most entertaining overview of 1950s and 1960s French music. While any two CD compilation can only ever hope to scratch the surface and more in-depth anthologies are required to be fully comprehensive, for the neophyte this actually serves it’s purpose well of introducing the listener to a whole raft of musicians. The music is neatly divided up between male crooners, Left bank existentialist singers, women singers and jazzier influences that includes both instrumentalists from famous French new wave film soundtracks, or French jazzers. Among the crooners, Yves Montand deserves to be heard by an anglophone audience and his interpretations of the music of Prévert are near definitive. Here he delivers the smooth sounding ‘C’est si bon’. Talking of smooth operators, Sacha Distel takes some beating and it may come as a surprise to non-French readers to learn that he was a very accomplished jazz guitarist before becoming a singer. Arguably his most famous song is showcased here, ‘Scoubidoo’. Henri Salvador gained international recognition late in his career, but this early jazz scat, ‘C’est le be bop’, is an indication of what was to follow. While Charles Aznavour is best known in the UK for ‘She’, his late 1950s and early 1960s sides were full of emotion and jazzy orchestrations and ‘Je me voyais, déjà’ is typical of his output from the era. For more left-field sounds, this compilation deserves great credit for including some of the following singers. Bobby Lapointe came to prominence as a subversive singer who made a brief appearance in François Truffaut’s ‘Shoot the pianist’ film. Here ‘Framboise’ is boisterous, fast-paced and a delight from start to finish.

Preceding the 1960s starlettes by a decade, Juliette Gréco possesses a deep, throaty voice that was ideally suited to interpreting Gainsbourg and Prévert and ‘Si tu t’imagines’ is just one of her vast repertoire and a fine example at that. Léo Ferré is the current French president’s favourite singer and the melodic ‘A Saint Germain des Prés’ is an early illustration of Ferré’s beautiful voice. He would later become famous for his lengthy literary raps and he was very much an anti-establishment figure. Barbara may be less known outside France, but has few equals in France as a singer-songwriter and ‘Dis quand reviendras-tu?’ is a fine example of her pared down sound. Jacques Brel needs little introduction, but for those as yet unaware ‘La valse à mille temps’ shifts gear as only Brel knows how and he is an all-time great of the French language. Last, but by no means least, Serge Gainsbourg is nothing less than a national treasure, but interestingly for those who are familiar with his later psychedelic period, here the focus is on his jazz period. Both ‘Intoxicated man’ and ‘Requiem pour un twister’ are superior examples of his early period that stand the test of time. A trio of French women singers includes the obligatory Françoise Hardy and her seminal ‘Tous les garcons et les filles’, another Truffaut sound track song by Jeanne Moreau, ‘Le Tourbillon’, featured in the delightful ‘Jules et Jim’ film and a melancholic sounding Brigitte Bardot on ‘Sidonie’. Jazz musicians featured include Miles Davis and his stunning contribution to Louis Malle’s ‘Lift to the Scaffold’ film and pianist Martial Solal and the terrific soundtrack to Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal ‘A bout de souffle’/’Breathless’. Noteworthy are two other pieces, the Latin-jazz influenced ‘No hay problema’ by Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers and a vocal number by Claude Nougaro. This French singer deserves a compilation of his own for an English-speaking audience, such is the richness of his 1960s jazz and 1970s Brazilian flavoured songs. A final mention should be made for France’s answer to Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, les Double Six who deliver a stunning version of one of Art Blakey’s staple tunes ‘Moanin’. All in all a musical experience that is truly a ‘joie de vivre’!

Tim Stenhouse