Slipping on a Paris Combo album is like sliding into the ease of a Sunday afternoon. The soft sway of the rhythms and Belle du Berry’s charming vocals don’t urge; they invite.
Last year, in stark contrast to the group’s unfailingly effervescent music, came the sad news that du Berry died of cancer in August 2020 at the age of 54. Amid fans’ bittersweet memories of all the pleasure that du Berry and Company had brought to their lives was the thought that there would be no more music from Paris Combo. But, it turns out, the group was finishing up an album when du Berry’s health declined, and they have now released it.
While it is tempting to look for signs of du Berry’s impending death in Quesaco?, the songs are as fully formed and joy-filled as any in their career. Intentional or not, the message seems to be to continue to enjoy life, and du Berry was undoubtedly the perfect messenger.
With the release of Paris Combo’s first album in 1997 amid a swing revival in France, they were often labeled as the latest purveyors of the perpetually popular “Gypsy jazz” of guitarist Django Reinhardt. In fact, the members came from diverse and unlikely musical backgrounds, including punk, Afrobeat, jazz, and cabaret. Even then the Django-style jazz was only one of the facets of their lightly sparkling sound. Particularly with their 2000 second album, Living Room, they found their following over with their easygoing, sophisticated pop sound, which pulls from French chanson, swing, and North Africa, among other influences.
The title cut translates to “What’s it all about?” and is a mid-tempo, wry rumination on the world. Du Berry’s vocals ride over a steady but light rock beat amid brass flourishes as she sings: “We live in a desert all alone, and covered in sand and dust / But if we dare to, we can be roses.” To add some surreal touches of humor to the musical accompaniment, du Berry adds some silly Theramin-like warbling at the end and blurting trombone lines.
“Seine de la vie Parisienne” is a laid-back swing about walking along the Seine River, moving at the perfect pace for a stroll along the scenic waterway. As well as extolling the sights, it is a love song about falling in step with a lover. On the next song, “Panic a Bord (Panic Stations)”, Paris Combo turn up the heat with a dance-motivating mix of percolating percussion and electronic brass chants. In her smooth and bouncing vocal lines, du Berry advises listeners not to be scared of love and strap themselves in for the “emotional roller coaster that will lift you to cloud nine.”
Amid the jazzy rhythms of “Maudit Money (Cursed Money),” the band sings a tongue-in-cheek look at the various temptations of money and the frustrations of wanting more than what you have, from plastic surgery to moving to the express line at the airport, saying “It will cost you.”
In the mixed French and English of “Do You Think”, the music still is contagiously rhythmic, but the mood is somewhat darker and contemplative. In what might be a premonition of what was to come, Du Berry sings in one verse: “Do you think / My love is leaving… I’m doubting / I’m crying I’m learning while I’m dying.” The chorus kicks in with a more hopeful, reggae-ish beat, and du Berry sings: “The world twists and turns / I think of a thousand desires / And I give flight / To the crazy ideas that keep me aloft.”
The album ends with the Hoagy Carmichael-esque, syrupy slow-dance rhythm of “Paresser par ici (Lazing Around)”. Paris Combo’s guitarist Potzi gently pushes along the lovely tune while David Lewis adds lovely trumpet lines. In this elegy to ease, du Berry sings what could be the band’s mission statement: “Dallying, lingering, loafing… it’s always in style / Avoid all effort, and let the beauty of inaction prevail.”
Du Berry’s final album tacitly reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously, to lay back and enjoy the bountiful, beautiful world around us regardless of our place in it. With these final stories, she leaves us a lovely legacy of a repertoire, an invitation to slip on languor like a silk robe and let those caught in the rat race chase their own tales.