March 27, 2014
“April in Paris” is one of the greatest jazz ballads everywhere, a tribute to the metropolis that has for a century been called “the city of love.” Here are a selection of tunes that have been a part of the city’s incredibly rich musical history.
1. “April in Paris,” Billie Holliday.
Out of the hundreds of ballads from the classic American songbook written about Paris, this Vernon Duke/ E.Y. Harburg standard (from a long-forgotten Broadway musical) stands out. It has been covered innumerable times, and never more feelingly than in this classic recording from one of the first ladies of jazz.
2. “Entre Copin/ Je me cuidoie/ Bele Ysabelos” (double motet from the Montpellier Codex); Anonymous 4, from the album Love’s Illusion.
Paris in the 1200s was a university town brimming with smart-alec students who loved clever rhymes and puzzles. This beautiful love song (Fair Isabel!) has two other songs woven over it. The first is a paean to an April love. The second is like a teasing commentary from a friend, Mercutio to the first singer’s Romeo. The specificity of the names makes the whole game more real — we might imagine them really making up these songs in after-dinner good spirits.
3. “Swing de Paris,” Django Reinhardt, from the album Djangologie.
The great guitarist, one of the first homemade European jazz stars, is one of the towering figures in Parisian musical history.
4. & 5. “Tambourins” and “Rigaudons” from the suite to La Temple de Näis (Rameau); Les Musiciens de Louvre, Marc Minkowski, cond.
Jean-Philippe Rameau, an 18th-century composer, was not a Parisian until very late in his life, when he became a famous opera composer. By then he had already composed a lot of music and had written one of the most influential music theory books of all time. These are dance movements from a ballet.
6. “Hommage à Rameau,” Images, Book 1 (Debussy); Samson Francois, piano.
In Claude Debussy’s “belle epoque” Paris, Rameau was rarely played or studied despite his historical importance. Debussy’s delicate evocation of his music was a small but telling blow against the intellectual orthodoxy of the time.
7. “A Paris” (Yves Montand); Yves Montand.
In the 1950s, the singer-actor Montand was one of the most recognizable French stars. This song, which he wrote himself, became one of the dependable crowd-pleasers in his cabaret act.
8. “Non, ne regrette rien” (No, I regret nothing), (Charles Dumont, Michel Vaucaire); Edith Piaf.
This 1956 anthem was one of the signature songs of Edith Piaf, without a doubt the most famous French cabaret singer ever, and one whose voice and music are indelibly wedded to Paris.
9. “La Seine”; Vanessa Paradis, from the movie A Monster in Paris.
A modern day pop-star, Vanessa Paradis inhabits the French cabaret style for this song from a recent movie. The song is about the river Seine, which flows through the middle of Paris (“She’s overflowing her banks, so sure of herself, the Seine”). But the name of the river is pronounced the same as “la scene,” the stage (they’re homophones). So it’s also a song about finding power through performance.
10. “Bongo Bong,” Manu Chao, off the album Clandestino.
French music is not eternally stuck in the mid-1950s. There are good indie bands, metal bands, and plenty of musicians from former French colonies and around Europe playing all kinds of interesting music, so no need to think that Daft Punk and Manu Chao are the only living French musicians who matter. That said, here’s Manu Chao’s biggest hit.