Annie Poulain: The Real Thing

Robert J. Lewis By

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Annie PoulainAnnie Poulain from Quebec City, Canada sings in French; Astrud Gilberto ("The Girl from Ipanema") sings in Portuguese; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in German. We English speakers don't know the languages, but we love to listen because, like the violin, the piano and the saxophone, the voice—before it speaks or sings—is an instrument that emotes. Since music is itself a language, words have always played, at best, a strong supporting role. At worst they are superfluous or redundant. So when music is sung, we are always first responding to the instrument that the voice is, and then the lyrics and their language. Which is why language is never an obstacle; and no matter how great the lyrics, if we don't like the melody we don't buy the song.

More and more jazz aficionados are listening to Annie Poulain because her pulsating, deftly controlled, all-weather voice opens up worlds that quickly become choice destinations. But because she sings in French only, lesser singers are receiving greater notice and opportunities, as if listeners are trusting the critics more than their ears. Yes, it's a dirty shame that one's mother tongue and not musical ability often determines how far a singer goes. In other words, Annie Poulain is learning—like all of us sooner or later—that life isn't fair. The good news is that, especially in the music business, perception gaps can disappear in a hurry—an outcome to be encouraged because there is no mistaking her talent.

After a long and instructive apprenticeship, this singer has just released her first CD entitled Annie Poulain (Jazzons Québec, 2006), which features a mother lode of original interpretations. From one cut to the next, it doesn't take long to figure out that Poulain does a lot of things better than well, beginning with a play list that demonstrates French lyrics and melody can be wonderfully adapted to jazz.

Her voicing, keen sense of pacing and emotional range stand up to any measure, while her judicious use of the solo is a lesson in restraint that deserves to percolate from the bottom up. Far too often in jazz, the solo is tacked onto a piece in a take-it or leave-it fashion, or like a military operation, it's decided in advance who will perform, in what order, and for how many bars. Absent is any sense of urgency or necessity, betraying jazz's founding principles: that it be spontaneous and deeply felt.

When pianist Vincent Gagnon, in the heart wrenching and wistful "Ma Préference," takes over from the voice, it's because the voice knows the piano must speak and of necessity yields to the moment. The transition is breathless, perfect, and once heard, speaks to what we think of as inevitable in music. Staying true to the tone and economy of the group's approach, Gagnon's playing, à la Diana Krall, is lean and Spartan, where every note counts and where what is said and how it is said constitutes a single vocation. From Annie Poulain we learn that not all songs require a solo, that the solo can be said to fulfill its destiny when it serves both singer and song.

Since we already know what Gagnon can do, we are waiting for him to do more consistently what he already does so well. Just as we are waiting for Annie Poulain to become a household name, and listeners to finally reward a jazz singer who richly deserves to be rewarded. Unlike most young aspirants, this inventive vocalist can color and cozy up to any mood, and is at her best doing the ballads, the litmus test of any singer worth her C sharp major.

Annie Poulain is not just some next new diva on the block. She's the real thing, with a warmth and penetration against which Quebec's winters and language-leery listeners don't stand a ghost of a chance.

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Annie Poulain

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