Guillaume de Chassy: The Ugly and the Beautiful
De Chassy and Yvinec followed Chansons sous les bombes with Wonderful World (Bee Jazz/Sunnyside, 2005), the only one of his records to have been distributed in the US. Like its predecessor, Wonderful World wallows in beautiful melodies composed in troubled times.
"What really struck us, Daniel Yvinec and me, is precisely that: the paradox between a terrible era, an era of unhappiness, of devastation, of death, ultimately; and the flourishing of these songs'I love you...'with little flowers, where everyone's in love. Of course, people needed that at that time, but still, it's a fairly remarkable paradox. I am tempted to draw a parallel with the current era, with Mr. Bush in command, and not just Mr. Bush either, but he's nevertheless part of the leading cartel.
"What seems to play well today, among musicians, among artists in general, is to always favor the dark side. I've noticed this; dress in black, make an unpleasant face, don't be too friendly. An apology for the dark side, if not for the sordidthat sells, that sells pretty well. I read something by Balzac, a preface by Balzacah, no, it was a passage from a book called Les illusions perdues, where there is a young man who arrives from the provinces to become a journalist, and there's an older man who gives him advice. He tells him, 'If you want to be successful, you have to be unpleasant, you cannot be too nice, you must be a bit surly, a bit mysterious in everything, etc.' And you see this in music too, in art in general, and Daniel and I, we had no desire to go in that direction. We said, these songs are pretty, they are beautifulwhether we're talking about Chansons sous les bombes or Wonderful Worldlet's play them, naïvely, even, let's not hesitate to be naïve and to make beautiful music. Maybe it's not a masterpiece, but it's all right to play pretty songs. Something that brings light. Without going so far as to say, as Fred Astaire would, 'Everything's great, it's super.' In the background you hear dark things, disquieting things. But it's true that I demand the right to play beautiful melodies if I want to play them.
"But this is not in the air, these days, at least not in France, among jazz musicians, among contemporary composers. Not at all. There is a great fear of anything that might be melodic or harmonic, it's really astonishing. In France, among French musicians, in the 60s, after the great rebellion of French jazz musicians against American jazz, and the triumph of free jazz, you hear a lot more music inspired by Arnold Schoenberg than inspired by Cole Porter. There was a sort of rejection of that melodic legacy; even of Charles Trenet. And I never understood why. Now, things are starting to change, slowly.
L:R: Guillaume de Chassy, Mark Murphy, Daniel Yvinec
"Alternatively, if there was melody, it was affected or vapidbut in creative jazz, among contemporary composers, above all, there must be no melody, or it must be complicated, it must be[scats complicated melodic line]. You hear that, it's remarkable, huh? It's very elaborate, it's very complicated, but in fact, it's not something that's difficult to write. Now, this is off the record, because it's nasty of me. Writing a Mozart concerto, that's really difficult. At least, I think so [laughs]! To write 'My Foolish Heart,' that's very difficult. I think those guys, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Kern, Cole Porter, I think they're geniuses. Because it's very very difficult. To write a pretty song is difficult. Paul McCartney, he's a genius; Stevie Wonder, he's a genius."
The concept behind Wonderful World is an unusual one: de Chassy and Yvinec asked anonymous New Yorkers, many of them on the street, to sing American standards; they then took the tapes back to France and built the music around these veritable field recordings.
"We wanted to record that album with Andy Bey, because Andy had liked our record Ghost of a Song. To be straight, I wrote to Andy Bey's agent, who sells more than a few records in France. And his agent said, 'These are just some little French guys'and in fact, the cost was too high. We didn't invite Andy Bey because it was too expensive, too complicated, and with the budget we had available, we told the producer, we'll go to New York and ask people to sing in the street. And we came across Andy Bey in a New York hotel, recorded him just like everyone else, with a mini microphone!
"The first few days, the people we met, either they didn't want to sing, or they didn't sing well; they didn't necessarily know the songs. And we were very French about it, you know; the French always want to explain, to say, 'This is like this, and therefore you will understand that...,' but in fact that doesn't work with New Yorkers. For New Yorkers, it's 'We're making a record, you want to sing on it, yes or no?' We're not direct like Americans! It's really a quality of the American people, thatboom! Things are simple. To approach someone in France, you have to say, 'Excusez-moi, Monsieur...,' but in any case in New York, it's not like that. We finally understood that, and we met people, friends of friends, we went into jazz clubs in the evenings to meet people; they told us, 'Yeah, I know so-and-so who will help you, go see so-and-so at his place, he knows a lot of songs.' Friends of my sister, who lives in Washington, the grandparents of a friend of hers, and a lot of people in the streetyou can hear the sounds of the subway. We could make a second album from that material, because there is a lot left, a lot..."
The star of the record is Milt Hoffman, an elderly man who tells stories about the songs and/or sings on the majority of the tracks of the album. "I've stayed in touch with Milt Hoffman, because he's the most important person on that album. He was really touched that I sent him the record. He invited us to his home, in New York, and we spent an afternoon listening to him sing. We had our microphone and he sang. Songs he knew, and he knew a lot, because he used to listen to the radio."
For example, Jerry Herman's "Next Time I Love." "'Next Time I Love,' it's Andy Bey who sings it, but it's Milt who says that his wife chose that song for their wedding. He had a lot of little anecdotes, and we used only a small number, because he told us a lot of stories. A very charming gentleman."