CD REVIEW: Camille Bertault - Pas de Géant



Camille Bertault - Pas de Géant
(Sony Music 88985422322. CD review by Sebastian Scotney)

Camille Bertault is a French jazz vocal phenomenon. She has made an impact on YouTube where she has a channel, which is home for example to a nonchalant and completely transfixing version of  Hermeto Pascoal’s Frevo Novo. She has an extraordinary facility. She really can do the impossible as if without effort.

However, her new album Pas de Géant  (Giant Steps) shows there is more, much more to her. She has said in an interview  that she wanted to make “an album which represents everything I am ….An album which looks like me rather than its own genre.” And Sony have given her the Rolls Royce treatment. Ten days in a studio, a classy arranger, trumpeter Michael Leonhart (son of bassist Jay for those with elephantine memories) and a fine band with a prominent role for pianist Dan Tepfer.  Exceptions to the care lavished on this project are the English press release which is laughably poor - and e.g.the captioning of the video below.

There are some astonishing displays of virtuosity, like the title track Pas de Géant (Giant Steps). It is a vocalese version of the Coltrane solo, full of puns and internal rhymes “prendre le le train avec “Trane” et surtout ne pas traîner” (taking the train with Trane and not dragging) is just one of masses of examples. And buried in the rapid fire of the words there is even a credo about why this music, this jazz matters, what the purpose is: “On est là pour délivrer l'urgence, sa subjectivité radicale” (We are here to deliver the urgency, its radical subjectivity.) The radical, the thoughtful, the daring are never far. Arbre Ravéologique, for example, is an exhilarating whistle-stop tour through about sixteen Ravel melodies in four minutes.

The delight of playing with the verbal possibilities of the French language, of savouring the musicality of alliteratively used words is a recurrent feature. Tantôt with just bass and accordion is a tongue-twisting gem. This whole "verbal" side to her, the fact that she is as interested in language-as-music and for its own sake was new to me. If this sounds dry and abstract it isn't. She has a great sense of fun and extracts from live performance show her as a stage-force to be reckoned with.

The jazz end of the chanson repertoire is also there. There isn't any Nougaro or Boris Vian, but their aesthetic feels close. Comment te dire adieu is a broken-beat updating of 1968 Serge Gainsbourg hit for Françoise Hardy. There is one of the lesser-known songs from the Demy/Legrand movie Les Demoiselles de Rochefort - delightful. There is Brassens, a teasing version of Je me suis fais tout petit with an extraordinary voice trumpet episode, Cathy Berberian-like abstraction, and a child-like pleading “maman” at the end. Vocally, another singer who came to mind was the soaringly high French coloratura Mady Mesplé, who in her prime was equally at home in Offenbach as she was working with Boulez.

Pas de Géant is an album of experimentation, of extremes. Bertault's over-the-top rendition of the Brigitte Fontaine song (parce que je suis) Conne, ending in a blood-curdling scream brings to mind involuntarily the English expression “as mad as a box of frogs.” There are other sections which show a proximity to the traditions of contemporary classical music. Comptes de Fées with its jagged intervals is a track which reveals its subtleties gradually. And there are other excursions. Bill Evans' Very Early is beautifully sung. The speedily scatting Goldberg is the first variation from Bach, a zippy allegro marcato, done as a two-part invention for voice and piano left-hand. And there is a characterful Casa de Jade (Wayne Shorter's House of Jade from Juju) enjoying the twists in the melody. She is currently heading back to Brazil.

When you see the album in iTunes, the word “pop” pops up under “Genre” sixteen times. That had me wondering when the album arrived what kind of concessions to popularity, compromises, what limits  might have been imposed in the search for "pop". I was wrong. In fact, Bertault always manages to flee the safety of predictable. As she says, she always wants to welcome the “mise en danger” of jazz. It is to Camille Bertault's credit that she has made such a deeply musical, varied and above all personal album. The last two people to whom I played it enjoyed it so much they made a note to buy it.

EPK for Pas de Géant

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