If one is interested in exploring French music, there are many different options. There’s French alternative rock, French dance–pop, French Euro–pop, French R&B and French hip–hop. Or, one can go the classic chanson route, which is what veteran singer Sylvia Bennett does on C’est Si Bon. Bennett is not a native of France; the veteran cabaret/jazz singer was born in Italy but raised in the United States (she now lives in South Florida), and most of her recordings have been in English. But she performed in Spanish exclusively on her album Sonríe (Smile) and sticks to French lyrics on C’est Si Bon.
Although French is not Bennett’s native language, her articulation in French is excellent on memorable cabaret/chanson performances such as “La Seine” (as in Paris’ Seine River), “C’est Magnifique” (“That’s Magnificent”), “Et Maintainant” (“And Now”) and “Pour Toi” (“For You”). Bennett is equally convincing on the themes from “Moulin Rouge” and “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”( as well as on the Joseph Kosma standard “Les Feuilles Mortes,” a.k.a. “Autumn Leaves.” Numerous artists have performed “Les Feuilles Mortes”/“Autumn Leaves” over the years, ranging from hard bop/soul–jazz alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley (who recorded it as an instrumental with trumpeter Miles Davis in 1958) to Edith Piaf to Jo Stafford. The familiar Kosma melody has French lyrics by Jacques Prévert and English lyrics by Johnny Mercer; on C’est Si Bon, Bennett chooses Prévert’s lyrics and brings them to life vividly.
Songs associated with Piaf (the most famous French singer of the 20th Century) are a logical choice on chanson albums, and on this release, Bennett performs Piaf’s signature song: “La Vie en Rose” (a major hit in 1947). Piaf had many other hits as well, ranging from “Mon Legionnaire” in 1936 to “Hymne à l’Amour” in 1949 to “Sous le Ciel de Paris” in 1954. But “La Vie en Rose” is widely regarded as her theme song, and on C’est Si Bon, it is a pleasing way for Bennett to acknowledge Piaf’s legacy.
Over the years, many French vocalists have combined chanson with the bossa nova. That blend of French lyrics and a Brazilian beat wasn’t what one expected from bossa nova in the beginning; the influential bossa nova recordings that João & Astrud Gilberto made with songwriter/pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz in the early 1960s favored a combination of Portuguese and English lyrics. But when the soundtrack of French director Claude Lelouch’s 1966 film “Un Homme et Une Femme”/“A Man and a Woman” (starring Anouk Aimée and Jean–Louis Trintignant) became a big hit, it was evident that chanson and bossa nova could be a strong combination. Parts of Francis Lai‘s classic soundtrack did a lot to popularize the fusion of chanson/bossa nova, especially the gorgeous title song (which Bennett skillfully performs on C’est Si Bon). And Bennett employs a Brazilian influence not only on “A Man and a Woman,” but also, on “Que Reste–t–il de Nous Amours” (which was a hit for the late Dalida, a multi–lingual singer who was born in Egypt to Italian parents) and “Pour Toi.”
Bennett also turns her attention to Charles Trenet’s “La Mer,” a.k.a. “Beyond the Sea,” which is a song with both a chanson connection and a traditional pop/crooner connection. Trenet recorded the song in 1946, performing his French lyrics. But Jack Lawrence wrote English lyrics for Trenet’s melody, and the most famous English–language version was the one that Bobby Darin recorded in 1958. Bennett goes with the French lyrics, favoring a swing arrangement that is mindful of gypsy jazz. In fact, the seminal king of gypsy jazz, guitarist Django Reinhardt, recorded a great instrumental version of “La Mer”/ “Beyond the Sea” in 1949. Bennett’s version, of course, isn’t instrumental, but melodically and rhythmically, the arrangement definitely has that gypsy jazz/Reinhardt influence.
C’est Si Bon is one of Bennett’s finest accomplishments.
Review by Alex Henderson
4 stars (out of 5)