Stacey Kent recently played the Grand Rex in Paris to promote her new CD - "Raconte moi". The US-born jazz singer is no stranger to France. She was awarded the "Chevalier des Arts et Lettres" (2009) in recognition of her contribution to the arts. She mixes timeless French classics like "Le Mal de Vivre" with new songs written by young songwriters.
Since her first album Close your Eyes was released in 1997 (and with her subsequent seven CDs) Stacey Kent has demonstrated a great talent in bringing new colour to classic jazz standards, thanks to her unique voice and sensitivity. Stacey Kent is a truly international artist. Born in 1968 in New Jersey, she studied music in England where she met her husband Jim Tomlinson, who she also describes as her saxophonist-producer-composer-best friend.
Grammy-nominated and with a Jazz BBC award, she also had great success with her European public when her latest album Breakfast on the Morning Tram (2007) went Platinum and Gold in Germany and France. This album included beautiful songs co-written by Jim Tomlinson and Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro; such as “The Ice Hotel” and also new versions of Serge Gainsbourg favourites. Stacey Kent also performs a bright new version of “What a Wonderful World”, so inextricably associated with the voice of Louis Armstrong.
Jazz amateurs like me are used to the deep and powerful voices of jazz vocalists. Well, the sweet voice of Stacey Kent is very different, and that is probably what makes it so moving. Covering a cult song that everyone knows by heart is always a bit risky. The singer ought to bring something new to the song without ruining the essence of its origins. Otherwise it will just give the audience a feeling of déjà vu. The artist also needs to capture the meaning of the song and its raison d’être.
Stacey Kent has a special relationship with France via her Russian grandfather who escaped from the Bolshevik revolution and took refuge in Paris. The family later migrated to the US, but he remained deeply affected by French culture and literature, and he did his best to pass it down to his grand-daughter, teaching her Baudelaire poems. No doubt he succeeded. He would be proud to hear that she received the prestigious ‘National Order of Arts and Letters’ (“Chevalier des Arts et Lettres”), a government decoration, in recognition of her contribution to the arts, from the French Culture Minister in 2009.
Stacey Kent’s new record Raconte moi (Blue Note) is an all-French album which she has been working on for a while. This record is a mix of timeless French songs (such as “Le Mal de Vivre” by Barbara) and also songs written for her by young local songwriters (Benjamin Biolay, Keren Ann and Emilie Satt). And C’est magnifique! Stacey Kent understands French poetry perfectly and she really captures the meaning of those hand-picked songs with a lot of freshness. The crystalline timbre of her bewitching voice does the rest. The alchemy is there.
Her latest concert in Paris last week [May 18th at the Grand Rex] was the perfect occasion to check the strong relationship she has with her French audience. Before going to the concert in Le Grand Rex, I visited her Facebook page and was surprised by the large number of messages she had received. At the concert itself, it was probably the first time I had ever heard a jazz singer say: “I am going to play the next song because many of you requested it on my Facebook page”. Wow!… that’s a good way to keep in touch with fans before and after a performance. The concert was awesome, with her amazing voice and talented musicians. They have played together all over the world for the past few months but you feel they are still really enjoying themselves.
As she explained during the concert, she discovered the songs from the French repertoire with the eyes of a child. That is probably why the emotion is there. During the concert, Stacey Kent revealed that she had also learnt Portuguese since her last Paris performance, and she sang two charming Brazilian covers. I would not be surprised if she soon releases a full jazz-samba album, including João Gilberto’s classics.
Stacey Kent loves the stage. In the coming months she will be travelling all around the world with her husband and their terrific musicians and if you get the chance to see her perform live, take it!. Obviously I have been charmed, maybe you will be too.
Paris. May 24th 2010