A concert tracing the influence of the Great French Songbook from an American perspective
Music and lyrics by Cyril Assous, Eddy Marnay, Henri Betti, Jerry Seelen, Murray Grand, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, Alan & Marilyn Bergman, Michel Legrand, Jacques Demy, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Léo Delibes, Gilbert Becaud, Joseph Kosma, Jacques Prevert, Johnny Mercer, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour, Herbert Kretzmer, Jacques Revaux, Claude François, Paul Anka, Jule Styne, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Carl Sigman, Leonard Cohen, Jennifer Warnes, and Bill Elliot
Lee Lessack (singer) & Nathan Martin (piano)
Conceived and directed by Brian Lane Green
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 14 May, 2010
Venue: Pizza on the Park, Knightsbridge, London
What is the difference between the Great American Songbook and the Great French Songbook? The answer is probably the difference between the singer and the chanteur. French chanteurs are not just singers per se, for their raw material is usually about something important, is deeper emotionally and performed with great passion. Good as many American singers are, interpretation is not necessarily the main point. Rather the singer serves the song, the composer and the lyricist, whereas a chanson usually has something vital to convey and is more like the torch-song, a subdivision in the Great American Songbook.
The material that Lee Lessack uses in his new show, “Chanteur”, veers towards the French, although he also includes some American songs with French titles (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Dites-Moi’, Lerner & Loewe’s ‘C’est Moi’, Murray Grand’s ‘Comment Allez-Vous?’). Here we are mainly talking of songs by the likes of Gilbert Becaud, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Michel Legrand, all of whom have made a vast contribution to the art of French popular song, writers who have acquired as much celebrity as the best of the US songsmiths, and all, as it happens, singer-songwriters.
With just occasional explanations en route, Lee Lessack mainly lets the material speak for itself, saving most of his remarks for after the concert. Brian Lane Green conceived the idea and directs the show which seamlessly goes from one song to the next, sometimes taking in a single line or two and then moving on in a sort of patchwork of the best of the French chanson coupled with the work of English language lyricists who have collaborated with French composers or have translated French lyrics into English. An instance of this is of Alan and Marilyn Bergman who have worked with Michel Legrand on their most famous song ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’ from the original film of “The Thomas Crown Affair”, and ‘I Will wait for You’, written by Legrand and Jacques Demy for the film “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg”. This follows Charles Aznavour’s ‘Yesterday, When I Was Young’ in a sort of medley of songs about time, with Jule Styne and Comden & Green’s ‘Just in Time’, from “Bells Are Ringing”.
It is a real mixed bag of songs that Lessack includes. From Legrand’s ‘Pieces of Dreams’ we move into the Leiber & Stoller classic ‘Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots’ (‘L’homme à la moto’ when Piaf sang it) and then into a little of the ‘Flower Duet’ from Delibes’ “Lakme”. The most famous translations of French songs into English must be Joseph Kosma’s ‘Les feuilles mortes’, lyrics by the poet Jacques Prevert which Johnny Mercer turned into ‘Autumn Leaves’. Then there was Jacques Revaux and Claude François ‘Comme d’habitude’ with lyrics by François and Gilles Thibaut, which Paul Anka translated as ‘My Way’ for Sinatra and others to have hit records. Aznavour, who has had hits in virtually every European language, had a special success here with ‘She’ in Herbert Kretzmer’s English translation.
“Chanteur” is an enjoyable evening of memorable but often rarely performed material. Lee Lessack’s powerful voice does it full justice. For his London dates he was accompanied by the ever-resourceful Nathan Martin. Lessack will eventually record the concert on his own label, LML Music, which this enterprising performer uses to capture the work of his colleagues in the cabaret world. He has recorded over a hundred artists. Would that they could perform at places like Pizza on the Park, although that venue’s days are numbered. News has it, however, that it may surface elsewhere in London. Maybe when Lessack returns to the UK, he will be in a new London cabaret venue. Meanwhile he was off to Lille and Paris to try out “Chanteur” on the French. I am sure they will love it as much as London did.