You may think you have heard the songs from the Great American Songbook more than enough times so that you have no desire to hear them again. Think again. You haven’t heard them like you’ll hear them on Either Way: From Marilyn to Ella, the new album from French jazz singer Anne Ducros. That she makes these hoary standards her own doesn’t come close to doing justice to what she does with them. She transforms them, and more important, her transformations are absolutely killer.
She takes the original song and pushes its musical possibilities as far as they will go. This is a singer who colors outside the lines. Her vocals are a perfect demonstration of what a jazz singer should be doing. Many jazz singers are content to interpret; Anne Ducros creates. In a sense, what she does with a song parallels what her deconstructionist countryman Jacques Derrida does with literature. The original song becomes a remembered shadow that marks just how far she’s taken its ideas.
All this wouldn’t make much difference if the lady couldn’t sing. No problem, this is a lady with the chops to make her music work. If her performances don’t quite make you forget the originals, they sure give them a run for their money.
The concept of the album as Ducros explains is to work with songs associated with the great Ella Fitzgerald and somewhat surprisingly, Marilyn Monroe. The two are associated because of Fitzgerald’s acknowledgement of a debt to Monroe for a booking she got at the prestigious Mocambo in Los Angeles, at a time when black artists were discriminated against. Monroe, it seems, called the club owner and demanded Fitzgerald be booked immediately. She promised to show up and take a front row table every night of the gig. With that kind of publicity, how could he refuse?
The album is made up of 15 songs, 14 standards and one, the title tune, an original. Although there are some guest performers, the singer for the most part is backed by a quartet: Gilles Nicolas on double bass and electric bass, Benoît de Mesmay on piano, Maxime Blesin on guitars and percussion, and Bruno Castelucci on drums. It is a tight ensemble that not only backs up Ducros to perfection but contributes some fine solo work as well.
The songs—“You’d Be Surprised,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “Thou Swell,” just to name a few, all titles you know—need to be heard to understand what Ducros is doing. Check out her version of “Summertime” and you begin to get an idea of the complexity of her art. And classics like “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “A Fine Romance,” and “Laura” push the cliché envelope even further.
Either Way is perhaps the finest album from a jazz vocalist I’ve heard this year, and certainly the most interesting.