C’est Si Bon is the latest in a long line of releases for Grammy nominated vocalist, Sylvia Bennett. Her decade spanning career has seen her opening for acts like Dizzy Gillespie and Barry Gibb and touring and recording with the late, great, vibraphonist, Lionel Hampton. The years of experience are evident on this exceptionally crafted album of hers that takes her voice through a series of jazz standards and a couple of original compositions which blend in perfectly with some time tested classics.
As is hinted at in the album’s title, C’est Si Bon is recorded entirely in French (one of multiple languages Bennett is capable of singing in) with not a spot of English to be found. Fortunately, music being a language that exists beyond words, it’s not necessary to understand French to appreciate the beauty of Bennett’s work. Credit too needs to be given to her producer, string arranger, and guitarist, Hal S. Batt; each of the album’s 13 songs is immaculately produced to bring out the lush beauty of Bennett’s voice and the instrumental talents of the band themselves.
Cole Porter’s “C’est Magnifique” begins the album, and introduces us to the jazz line up of Mike Levine on piano, bassist Chuck Bergeron, drummer John Yarling and Billy Ross on the clarinet. Everyone plays just as well as you’d expect a highly trained jazz band to play; Bergeron’s bass is strong and plays well off of Yarling’s light drumming, Levine’s piano establishes the melody and Bennett adds a good deal of flavor with the clarinet. What differentiates this from any other rendition is Bennett’s performance. The years of experience show in how she never over performs a single note; she’s able to channel the song and deliver it while still letting the song speak for itself.
That concept of understated beauty shows itself again on the title track. Again the song sports a jazz arrangement, but most of the performances are low–key enough to let Bennett tackle the song. The major source of interplay here is how Bennett will finish a line and have it punctuated by the clarinet before she goes into the next bit of the lyric. This eventually leads into a beautifully played solo by Ross under which Levine’s stellar piano keeps the smooth melody.
“Que Reste–t–il de Nous Amours” is the first time we get to hear Batt open up the arrangements to something greater, though you wouldn’t expect it from the songs gentle opening of piano and voice. After about a minute the band comes in with a laid back groove of light percussion and gently picked guitar. The Vienna Strings add the lush tones that make this track so compelling, and Batt does a wonderful job of making them feel just present enough not to be intrusive but not so subtle as to be marginalized.
Especially worth noting is the song, “Pour Toi” which eschews the jazz format for a slightly more exotic sound as established through Batt’s Spanish guitar tones. It’s still based on top of Levine’s piano, but aside from the guitar, the string arrangement is also more upfront this time around and furthers the classical elements of the music. Though we don’t quite hear this kind of sound anywhere else on the album, we do get treated to some lovely string intensive waltz numbers, like the gorgeously sweet “Moulin Rouge” and the livelier but no less beautiful, “Le Seine.”
Speaking of exotic tones, Bennett and Batt capture a European flavor through the use of accordion on the songs, “La Vie En Rose,” and “Ce ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’ Sur Mon Paris.” The vocal on the former is especially noteworthy as we get to hear Bennett’s lovely voice ascend in a manner that we don’t hear frequently elsewhere. The latter is another piece in ¾ time that has Batt playing a very quick but soft acoustic guitar in the backing track, once again showing beauty and elegance through subtlety.
The last two songs, “Le Mer” and “Et Maintenant” are a one–two combination that powerfully close C’est Si Bon. “Le Mer” marks the return of the clarinet and that jazzier feel that the album veers away from for a time. Levine gets a chance to really shine here as well, delivering a subtle but rich piano solo halfway through the track before seguing back into the main melody. “Et Maintenant” is the perfect number to end with thanks to its sections of resounding intensity, that when matched with the lyrics, highlight the intense emotion of the song. As the drums pound away in an almost militaristic fashion, Bennett sings of loneliness and emptiness after the departure of one’s love.
There are numerous other songs featured on C’est Si Bon, all of which are a treat to listen to. Sylvia Bennett is a fabulous talent and no language barrier can conceal that. Despite being recorded in French, the record is so wonderfully performed, produced, and arranged that it can speak to people and engage them regardless of their native tongue. If you appreciate songs from the fabled great American songbook, then you owe it to yourself to hear the French equivalent of that, courtesy of the wonderful voice of Sylvia Bennett.
Artist: Sylvia Bennett
Album: C’est Si Bon
Review by: Heath Andrews
Rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)