The Song Remains the Same. It’s a Led Zeppelin concert movie I saw more than once when I was in high school in the 1970s, at midnight in a theater hazy with pot smoke. It could also describe the idea behind “Songs Without Words,” a concert program by early music trio Les Délices fusing the French song tradition of the 17th and early 18th centuries with jazz and Great American Songbook classics.
Saturday night, at a 5 Boroughs Music Festival concert at the Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, the trio showed that this surprising juxtaposition is no gimmick. In the second half of the 17th century, musicians began playing French art songs (airs sérieux), originally written to be sung, on newly invented woodwind instruments instead. Baroque oboist Debra Nagy founded Les Délices a decade ago in part to revive this music. Her latest inspiration has been to explore the resonance between those old airs and the sophisticated songs of the 20th century.
Rounding out the trio were Mélisande Corriveau, one of the finest viol players on the scene, and the superb harpsichordist Eric Milnes. The textures they create together range from dark and mysterious to vibrant and bright. One variable is Corriveau’s facility on both the tenor viola da gamba and the less-often heard pardessus de viole, the member of the viol family with the highest range (and five instead of six strings). Held in the lap, the instrument was popular centuries ago when the similarly sized and newly ascendant violin was considered inappropriate for women to play.
More importantly, the trio is adept at varying energy and emotional tenor through rhythmic playfulness and creative arrangements. They got the soulful spirit of Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” Nagy’s wooden oboe approaching the tone of a soprano sax. They swung easily on tunes like “Crazy” (the Patsy Cline hit), the Beatles’ “Michelle” (which, recall, has some French lyrics), and the crowd-pleasing standard “Autumn Leaves.” Corriveau laid down a jaunty and pretty solid walking bass line on the last, something I’ve never heard before on a viola da gamba.
Meanwhile their expressive renditions of centuries-old French songs were full of courtly romance and dreamy rubatos. They bathed their first Marin Marais selection in lush atmospherics. They found a dramatic and brighter tone in a song by Jean-Baptiste Lully featuring the pardessus. They evoked passionate romance in two works by Joseph Chabanceau de la Barre, a composer I’d never heard of.
They returned to Marais for the evening’s pièce de resistance, a new arrangement of his well-known “Folie d’espagne” that took the form of an impressive set of variations. These managed to bring to mind not only great works in that genre by the likes of Brahms, but also the jazz tradition, as Nagy and Corriveau traded improvised-sounding sixteens.
That marvelous performance wafted straight into another minor-key song in 3/4 time, Edith Piaf’s “La Foule.” The trio adorned it with the characteristic ornamented double verses of the early French airs. Conversely, in this expansive context, “Vos mespris” by Michel Lambert with its friendly melody could almost have been a 20th-century song.
Altogether the trio succeeding in illuminating the consonances among these songs of near and distant centuries. Crucially, they seemed to have a good deal of fun doing it. Playing with impeccable taste, tone, timbre, and togetherness, they revealed how in an important sense the song does remain the same, though it flowers in infinite variety.
Centuries ago the French transplanted their airs from the human voice to the the wordless tones of wooden instruments. In the 20th century and on into the 21st, jazz musicians reimagine 20th- and 21st-century songs in instrumental settings. Les Délices has stepped back to give us an even wider perspective by crafting intimate and incisive arrangements of material from different eras.