Léo Ferré ‘Monsieur Mon Passé Intégrale 1950-1960’ 9CD (Le Chant du Monde) 5/5

leo-ferreSinger-songwriter and lifelong anarchist, Léo Ferré was unlike any other singer in outlook, yet still was considered an integral part of the post-WWII French chanson tradition. This lovingly presented box set that folds out in concertina style covers the decade from 1950 when Ferré was already a mature thirty-four and signed for French independent label Le Chant du Monde year old until 1960, after which time he signed for major label Barclay. Precious few singers were so devoted to the spoken word as Léo Ferré and he expertly interweaved his lyrics with the music of bal musette, jazz and tango, all of which give an authentic and novel side to his music.
It is significant in that not only did Ferré develop into a marvellous songwriter for others, most notably for Catherine Sauvage and including the riotous foursome harmonies of les Frères Jacques, but he was perfecting his craft as a lead singer, and this meant not only writing for himself, but experimenting with the classical poetry Charles Baudelaire, transposing the lyrics into musical melodies that he wrote for them. Such ambitious projects mark Ferré out from the rest, and even his contemporaries, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, collectively referred to as the ‘Holy Trinity’, could only stand and admire the creative mind of Ferré.

While it would be impossible to attempt a comprehensive review of every CD contained within, the decade crucially witnessed the emergence of songs that would be performed throughout Léo Ferré’s career and these included, ‘Graine d’Ananar’, ‘Le flamenco de Paris, the Left bank favourite, ‘Paris Canaille’, and a song whose title neatly sums up the vocation of Ferré himself,’La vie d’artiste’. Other wonderful recordings are early versions of later hits for the singer such as the immortal, ‘Jolie Môme’, which he re-cut for Barclay in the early 1960s and scored a major success with.

A real bonus are the two live concerts from the prestigious Olympia concert hall and Bobino, both of which date from the late 1950s and are fine examples of what Ferré could achieve in a live context. Equally of interest, is a French national radio broadcast from 1951 with actor Jean Gabin (who was Jean Renoir’s favourite actor and a symbol of the turbulent Popular Front era in French history during the mid-late 1930s) reciting. Quite simply music of this level of complexity and intelligence is not made any more, yet even for the uninitiated the glorious melodies are so captivating that even if you do not understand the French language beyond basic level, the instrumentation will still captivate you and what is sometimes underestimated is what a beautiful voice Ferré possessed. A worthy contender for world roots music re-issue of the year, even if it has been available in France previously.

Tim Stenhouse