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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1218

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Paris Combo: Living-Room
by George Graham

(Tinder Records 42860882 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/15/2000)

The revival of interest in swing and other pre-rock styles has opened the door for some interesting and unconventional music to make its way onto the contemporary scene. The Squirrel Nut Zippers unexpectedly found themselves with a hit album on their hands, based on styles going back to the 1920s. And there was the pop success of swing revival groups like the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and others. The interest in music from the 1940s and before has brought forth some cabaret-style performers and the kind of women vocalist popularly referred to as a chanteuse.

Between the World Wars, Europe, and especially France, developed its own distinctive brand of swing as popularized by the late Django Reinhardt, and of course, Europe was where cabaret music originated. This week, we have a great fun album by a French group who carry on the tradition of le hot jazz, chanteuse singing, and general swing revival with a very European flair. The title is Living-Room and it's the latest recording by a group calling itself Paris Combo.

Despite their name, Paris Combo turns out to be a very international group, with members from France, Australia, Madagascar and a one-named guitarist who describes himself as "Mediterranean." Fronting the group is Belle Du Berry, a wonderfully charismatic and musically playful singer who comes across as the epitome of the French chanteuse, who combines elegance, wit, and a kind of impish theatricality that transcends any language barrier. She also plays accordion. Ms. Du Berry is joined by Australia keyboard man and trumpeter David Lewis, bassist and guitarist Mano Razanajato from Madagascar, the guitarist named Potzi, who plays his acoustic guitar in a style reminiscent of that of Django Reinhardt, and throws in a few Spanish style flourishes. Rounding out the group is the other Frenchman, a drummer who goes by the name François-François.

Paris Combo got its start as part of large production called Cabaret Sauvage, which also featured clowns and acrobats in addition to the music. Ms. Du Berry had also been very active in the cabaret revival movement in Paris in the 1990s, and also was also doing a lot of songwriting. She, Potzi and François got together and formed the first edition of the Paris Combo in 1995, and made their eponymous debut album in 1997, which the following year saw release in the US. While the French lyrics kept the record off the American pop charts, it did get a lot of critical praise, and would always generate phone calls whenever we played it here at WVIA.

Now they are out with Living-Room and it's a more adventurous record. The multi-cultural influences of the band members are more in evidence, and their sound runs from swing to mambo to vaguely exotic, with some of the pieces running through several musical moods during their course. Through it all, Ms. Du Berry remains the focus with her whimsical vocals, delivered in a way that could never be duplicated in anything but French. And though there are no translations for the lyrics provided in the CD, the music's beguiling quality goes beyond language, and the musicianship is always first rate, as the members of the group borrow liberally from a variety of styles from Latin American to Eastern European.

The CD begins with its title song Living-Room which is rather typical for this album with the piece winding its way through various moods in a beat that hints of reggae, while Ms. Du Berry exudes her thoroughly French charm. <<>>

More toward swing is the following song Terrien d'eau Douce, which translates as "land of fresh water." David Lewis' trumpet and Ms. Du Berry's vocals combine to provide an intriguing but vaguely decadent sound. <<>>

A high point of cabaret elegance on the CD comes on the track Je Suis Sourde or "I am deaf." The group combines a lot of great instrumental touches from the guitar flourishes to the trumpet lines to the piano style that is straight out of the society dance bands of yore. <<>>

Drummer Razanajato does some wordless vocal percussion from time to time on the album. He shares the vocals with Ms. Du Berry on Pas à Pas, which takes on a kind classy Latin American sound. It's another fun piece that shows how Paris Combo has expanded their musical scope since their last album. <<>>

With a more melancholy sound is Sour la Lune, or "under the moon." Again, the group proves its versatility, handling this piece with a good deal of elegance. <<>> The track ends with a curious sequence that sounds like Lewis blowing his trumpet while holding the bell under water. <<>>

One of the most fascinating pieces from a compositional standpoint is Ubiquité, which winds though various jazz-influenced styles as it unfolds. Again, the musicianship is first-rate. <<>>

The theatrical side of Paris Combo comes out on Si Mon Amour, or "if my love." Ms. Du Berry is at her charismatic best. <<>>

The CD contains one instrumental, Chez Nous, a curious blend of jazz and cabaret styles. <<>>

The album ends with its most stylistically unconventional piece, Mobil'homme, which takes a detour to the Middle East, while the group keeps things interesting instrumentally. <<>>

Paris Combo's new second US release Living-Room is a delightful record of clever swing revival, cabaret, and musical eclecticism, delivered in a beguiling combination of elegance and tongue-in-cheek theatricality that makes for fun listening and dancing. The musicianship by this international ensemble is outstanding, and Belle Du Berry's vocals are superb, with her range of emotions from come-hither seductiveness to musical petulance. She is very French, but the music transcends language. Still, given Ms. Du Berry's reputation as a clever lyricist, for non-Francophones, it would have been nice to have English translations of the words, which are printed only in French in the otherwise English CD booklet. The group has expanded its musical scope quite a bit since their last album to the point that they could no longer be easily categorized as a swing revival or cabaret band, and that eclecticism makes for a better album with more staying power after the initial novelty wears off.

In terms of sound quality, we'll give this Paris-made CD an A-minus. The mix is commendable, with Ms. Du Berry's vocals and the acoustic instruments being well-recorded. But the dynamic range falls short of what it should be for an all-acoustic ensemble like this.

With the swing revival still under way, Paris Combo's new album provides a distinctive and entertaining twist that goes well beyond bringing back to life an old style. They have developed a distinctive sound of their own, and promise to make their own elegant but vaguely decadent mark on the music world.

(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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