Anne Ducros is a contemporary French jazz singer, and she has won a whole bunch of cool French jazz awards (like the “Django D’Or”). She has a bright, swooping voice, and she has a nice sense of swing on this program of The Usual Standards: “God Bless the Child”, “You Go To My Head”, “My Foolish Heart”, and the like. And on five tracks here she is accompanied by pianists Jacky Terrason or Chick Corea.
The big leagues, this.
But English-speaking listeners will find this record nearly unlistenable for the most part. Ducros, singing in English on most cuts, sabotages her attempts at jazz style by pronouncing the lyrics in a comical accent. I feel I should tiptoe around this criticism, as I don’t mean to make fun of Ducros’ English. Goodness knows, I can’t speak French. But in this kind of music, where the singer is trying to create tremendous fluidity in the musical expression of the words, the odd pronunciation leads to phrasing that sounds unnatural and, well — weird. The various inflections and vocal twists here sound — nearly without exception — like some kind of jazz/Martian gibberish.
When Ducros is singing in her own language, as on her duet with Corea on “Les Feuilles Mortes” (which, uh, I’m pretty sure is the French version of “Autumn Leaves”), natural order is restored. She sounds in context and Chick matches her point for point. Her scat-singing is elastic and bold if kind of random and screechy in places, but at least she isn’t making odd grammatical errors or singing “tree” where she means to sing “three.” Corea’s solo is elegant and architectural and absolutely him.
Similarly believable is Ducros’ take on Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 1”, a vaguely Arabic-sounding transformation of the simple classical melody, rendered wordlessly, I think. Even here, however, Ducros brings an overwrought drama to her singing that gets away from her. When she reaches for the big moment — whirling her voice higher and faster — her tone gets strident and edgy. It sounds like theater rather than jazz — a simulacrum of jazz, maybe, but not a transformation of it as much as a bad attempt at imitation.
When Corea duets with the leader on “My Foolish Heart”, you just want to ask her to pipe down because of how she’s messing up your enjoyment of the great pianist. The way she turns “kiss” into a five-syllable word that somehow ends on a “z” is exasperating. Their “Body and Soul” is hair-tear-out harsh. The tracks with Terrason (“Never Let Me Go” and “God Bless the Child”) are less excruciating, as the nice band covers some of the edges. Jacky gives Billie’s signature tune a nice groove.
But there is a special place at the end of the record reserved for Ducros’ version of Coltrane’s “Naima”, possibly the most beautiful jazz ballad of all time. Taken rather quickly, the band gets plenty of mileage out of the tune’s incredible harmonies, and the tenor player acquits himself well. But his fine improvising serves to show up Ducros’ scat-singing for what it is — nonmusical flailing about.
I have an idea: I will end my review now before things get nastier. In return, Ducros, you should sing in French from now on, and stay away from my other favorite ballads (“A Child Is Born” and “My Romance”). Deal?