At 29, Cyrille Aimee is on the petite side and looks more than a little bit like a grown-up Shirley Temple complete with curls -- and some curves thrown in for good measure. Aimee is a rising jazz singer with special charm and a certain following in Greenwich. She's French-born but lives in Brooklyn. She sings easily on note, segueing from French to English and sometimes Spanish according to song. On stage she radiates a rhythm and joy when she sings.
This week (Nov. 13-17) Cyrille will be singing for Stephen Sondheim in a new production of "A Bed and A Chair -- A New York Love Affair" at the New York City Center where two dozen Sondheim songs are being reimagined by jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. (Bernadette Peters is part of the cast.) So how did Cyrille Aimee get tapped to be in such high company? "I've been singing in Dizzy's, the Rose Theater and the Allen Room at Lincoln Jazz Center and they recommended me," says Cyrille, reached between rehearsals.
Cyrille sings the jazz standards but she had to adapt herself to Sondheim's songs. "They're different," she says, "But after rehearsing them, it feels natural. The melodies are beautiful - everything is fun." "Swinging music makes me so happy," is her refrain, and romantic music. She composes songs as well but doesn't keep count of how many. "I give some of them a chance to exist," she says, like the lyrical "Sunny Days" (with music by her frequent guitarist, Diego Figueiredo) and "Good Morning Cowboy." She likes melodious songs with lyrics she can relate to in her own life.
It was while she was attending SUNY Purchase and getting her degree in jazz performance that she got gigs in a variety of Greenwich venues, including Indian Harbor Yacht Club and the Round Hill Club. She names pianist Pete Malinverni who directs Purchase's jazz program as her mentor.
Gravitating to Manhattan she worked her way into another Greenwich, Greenwich Village and all its night clubs. By the time she entered the hallowed jazz halls of Birdland, Jonathan Schwartz, the self-appointed ambassador of the American Song Book on WNYC Radio, was singing her praises. That's where I first heard her sing.
There followed my subsequent forays into Manhattan to hear her -- first at Birdland and then at The Cupping Room in the Village. Each time she did not disappoint. But there was a revelation to come of just what made for Cyrille's magic. It was her gypsy roots.
Last Sunday evening the bill was irresistible at Birdland: Cyrille Aimee at 6 p.m., followed by the finale of the annual New York Django Reinhardt Festival. I'd been introduced to the French jazz guitarist gypsy (1910-1953) by an Italian friend who'd lived in Paris. I'd learned of his impact on a favorite author, Alan Furst ,who was inspired by Django's music to set his spy novels in the prime time of Django -- the eve of WWII.
I'd seen Woody Allen's movie "Sweet Lowdown," which pays homage to the life and work of Django. And more recently I learned how Steve Jobs had chosen Django Reinhardt music to introduce his Apple Ipad.
Our table was ringside. Birdland was packed. Cyrille, as usual, captivated with her fresh ingenue appeal. She was soon followed by the arriving French guitar players, led by the Django look alike Dorado Schmitt. The lights went low and the full force of Django's gypsy jazz guitar music filled the room. With the incessant swift beat of the music every bone in my body wanted to keep the beat. It was hypnotizing.
And there came Cyrille, standing before them all, to sing and I could see how instinctively her body moved to the beat. I knew now -- having finally read Cyrille's biography on the train ride into New York -- of her life-long love affair with this gypsy music.
"I discovered music with the gypsies," she told me, "It's the reason why I sing. It's their way of living. It's fun and it's the way they live every day." Cyrille had grown up in the same French village as Django Reinhardt. As a young teenager she writes in her biography, she would steal out of her house and spend evenings with the gypsies, "singing by the fire with Django's descendants." She was "hypnotized" by this music, which made her want to tap her feet.
Everywhere she travels (four continents thus far), she finds lovers of Reinhardt's music increasing. "Jazz is big around the world," she says.
Come December, Cyrille will be off to Tokyo. She's booked a year in advance. In February she has a "major new album" coming out that has a predictably upbeat Cyrille Aimee title, "It's a Good Day." Selections will include a good measure of that Django Reinhardt beat along with some of Cyrille's new compositions.
Five years ago Cyrille learned to synchronize her singing with a loop pedal device that creates all sorts of accompaniments and rhythms. She performs with the loop pedal at Birdland sometimes, or in other concerts -- when she's in the mood.
She regularly returns to her French village of Samois-sur-Seine to "hang out with the gypsies." "My best friend is a gypsy," she says. But she always returns to New York. "There is so much music in New York," she says, "So many musicians." She discovers new artists every day, she says. So, now that she's been discovered what's next for Cyrille, she is asked. "I would love to act," she says. "I have so much fun acting. And I love to dance!"
There's just no telling where this girl will go.