Jazz vocalist Cyrille Aimée began a love of music began at an early age and in an unusual way. Growing up in rural France, there was always music in the house — her French father loved classical and her Dominican mother brought merengue and salsa into the mix. But an encounter outside her home stuck with Aimée to this day.
When she was around 14, Aimée fell in love with the gypsy culture and way of life in the town of Samois-sur-Seine. Gypsy jazz icon Django Reinhardt used to live there, and the town’s annual festival in his honor is attended by gypsies from all across Europe. “I really loved the freeness of their life and how natural it was for them to bring music into it,” recalls Aimée, who will perform on a bill with Django Reinhardt All-Stars and clarinetist Ken Peplowski in an SCP Jazz concert Oct. 24 at Symphony Center. “It was music that comes from the heart.”
But her parents weren’t exactly thrilled with the idea of their daughter running off to the gypsy encampment. “I would get grounded over and over but continued to sneak out my bedroom window,” Aimée adds, laughing. “Eventually, my parents realized there was nothing they could do because the music was so important to me.”
On a rainy night at the gypsy camp, a teenage Aimée first tested the waters as a singer. Crammed into a bus with all those musicians playing, she was caught up in the music and sang “Sweet Sue,” a song she had been taught by one of the musicians. “When I saw the smiles on everyone’s faces, that is when I realized I wanted to do this forever,” she says.
Now 30, Aimée captivates audiences with her smoky, sultry vocal style on songs that blend French gypsy jazz and Dominican rhythms. Since the release of “Cyrille Aimée and the Surreal Band” (2008). she has won first prize at the Montreux International Voice Competition in 2008, was among the three finalists at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2010 and won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2012. Last year, she acted and sang with Broadway star Bernadette Peters in an “Encores!” presentation of Stephen Sondheim’s music at New York’s City Center. “I wasn’t familiar with Sondheim’s music but I quickly fell in love with it,” Aimée says. “Plus, it was my first experience with the Broadway world. It was great.”
Her recent release, “It’s a Good Day” (Mack Avenue), mixes jazz standards, originals, rock songs and French tunes. A performer full of ideas, she notes that the album is different from her earlier work in that it’s “less straight-ahead jazz” and “goes back to all of my influences.” She uses her distinct vocal style and smart arrangements to transform songs such as Peggy Lee’s “It’s a Good Day,” Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When,” Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and a bit out of left field, a Latin-tinged version of Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall.”
“I’m a huge Michael Jackson fanatic,” Aimée says with a laugh. “I love everything he did, and that’s influenced me a lot.”
Her new original songs are just as interesting. “Nuit Blanche” (“White Night”) is her version of vocal gypsy jazz. “One Way Ticket” was inspired by a visit to India. “Bamboo Shoots” is gypsy jazz meets Hawaiian pop. And she wrote lyrics to “All Love,” an instrumental written by Reinhardt’s son, Babik.
Guitar is her favorite instrument, and the new album features a gypsy guitar, a jazz guitar and a Brazilian guitar, along with bass and drums. Getting the styles to mesh together was a challenge when arranging the various songs and setting the tone for the album. “We worked hard to create a sort of map for each guitar,” Aimée recalls. “The goal was to create something unique without turning it into a musical traffic jam.”
That do-your-own-thing spirit has stuck with Aimée throughout her career. At one point, she auditioned for “Star Academy” (the French “American Idol”) and was named a finalist. But when she learned that she would not be in control of what she sang, she walked away from the competition, to the shock of many.
“I would keep getting callbacks,” Aimée recalls. “It was during a time when I was just starting to discover all sorts of music. I realized I didn’t want to be tied up and told what to sing. I was discovering what I really wanted to do. And the one thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to be the next pop star.”
Mary Houlihan is a Chicago-based arts writer and reviewer.