The jazz-influenced Paris Combo first formed in 1995 and has gained popularity in Europe, Australia, Asia, and the United States, with a succession of increasingly well-received CD releases. The French-based acoustic combo has struck a positive chord with critics and audiences for their fun-loving mix of jazz, French pop, cabaret, gypsy, Latino, and Middle Eastern rhythms. Fronted by the smoky vocals of chanteuse Belle du Berry, the group also includes Australian David Lewis on piano and trumpet, Algerian-French guitarist Potzi, Madagascan bassist Mano Razanajato, and French drummer François Jeannin.
In the 1980s du Berry was involved in the punk music and alternative rock scenes in France, and sang in several bands, including Les Pervers Polymorphes Inorganisés, Les Endimanchés, and Les Champêtres de Joie. She also sang with guitarist Potzi and drummer Jeannin in an act called Cabaret Sauvage, which combined visual theater with traditional French chanson, or music-hall songs, from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. In the early 1990s du Berry shifted her focus from music to theatrical productions, and collaborated with French choreographer Philippe Decouflé. Together du Berry and Decouflé created the ballet that was performed at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, in 1992. Du Berry's focus, however, returned to music, and she hooked up once again with Potzi and Jeannin to form the trio Paris Combo in 1995. At that point, the group mainly played covers of traditional French chansons and a few original songs by du Berry and Potzi. By the next year, Paris Combo had added Lewis and Razanajato to the lineup, and the quintet played mainly original tunes.
Each member of Paris Combo has brought a distinct influence to the group that has helped shape its unique sound. Du Berry's singing has been described as infectious and mischievous, and the group's sound is anchored by her sexy vocals, but more importantly by her modern lyrics infused with a playful irony. Potzi, whose parents are Algerian, has been described by his bandmates as a "Django Rheinhardt freak." Potzi's guitar echoes the gypsy jazz sound of Rheinhardt, one of Europe's most influential jazz legends, while also adding Latin and Middle Eastern rhythms. Lewis, who first came to France as a student at the Paris Conservatoire in 1982, played trumpet with West African musicians Manu Dibango and Arthur H before joining Paris Combo. With his muted trumpet and piano, he has contributed a jazzy swing sound to the group. Madagascar-born Razanajato plays the double bass and sings vocals and scats, contributing to the group's Latin feel. Drummer Jeannin infuses swing into his percussions, and has also added New Orleans funk and electronica beats to the group's mix. At its core, Paris Combo is rooted in jazz, and the two commonalities the group members share is their love for jazz and their Paris base. Lewis has attributed the group's idiosyncratic sound to its geographical origin, explaining that "there are so many influences that criss-cross each other in a city like Paris."
Collectively the band represents an ensemble piece in which the whole is the sum of its parts. However, many critics and listeners have been drawn to Paris Combo by the alluring voice of du Berry. American critics in particular have been quick to make comparisons to legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf and cabaret star Marlene Dietrich. In an interview in Atomic with Seth Edlavitch, du Berry insisted, "I am very flattered when I hear people comparing me to Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich, but I don't think that it's a fair comparison. No one in France compares me to them." Lewis concurred in the interview, noting, "If you were really to ask Belle who are her musical influences, I think she would say Arletty, the French actress (from the 1930s), or the singer of the '30s, Marie Dubas." Regardless of comparisons, du Berry's vocals, which are sung entirely in French and receive no translation in the liner notes, have garnered an international audience. In an interview with Oscar Hapas for Radio France Internationale du Berry related, "I'd say I try and write songs that can be understood on several different levels at the same time. … I prefer to leave listeners free to dig around and come up with any meaning they choose. And if they don't want to do that, well, then they can just sit back and enjoy the melody, the rhythm or the superficial touch of humour I like to bring to the lyrics." She continued, "I love the idea of spontaneous writing, you know, the sort of 'automatic' texts Dadaists and Surrealists … experimented with in the '20s. I like the idea of coming up with stuff like that—because on the one hand that kind of writing sounds a bit wild and crazy, but on the other it's absolutely fundamental."
For the Record …
Members include Belle du Berry (born in 1966, in Bourges, France), lead vocals, accordion; François Jeannin , drums; David Lewis (joined group, 1996), trumpet, piano; Potzi , guitar; Mano Razanajato (joined group, 1996), bass, vocals.
Group originally formed as a trio in Paris, France, 1995; expanded to quintet, 1996; group built its reputation as a live act, touring France and Europe, 1997; released debut album, Paris Combo, on Pias label, 1997; signed with American label Tinder Records and released Paris Combo, 1998; released Living Room in Europe, 1999 and in the U.S., 2000; signed with Polydor, a European subsidiary of Universal, and released Attraction, 2001; released Live, 2002; album Motifs released in Europe, 2004 and U.S., 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Universal, c/o Polydor, 20/22 rue des fossés saint Jacques, 75005, Paris, France. Website—Paris Combo Official Website: http://pariscombo.artistes.universalmusic.fr/.
The group toured France and Europe extensively, honing their distinctive upbeat sound and gaining a large critical and popular following, before releasing their debut CD Paris Combo. The CD, released in France in 1997 and in the United States in 1998, recreated the jovial energy of their live performances in a studio recording. The single "Moi, mon âme et ma conscience" ("Me, My Soul and My Conscience") became the group's first popular single. The band caught the attention of executives at the American label Tinder Records, and Paris Combo signed with that label in October of 1998, touring American cities and selling 15,000 copies of Paris Combo in two months' time. The popularity of the band may have coincided with a swing revival in the mid-1990s, but Paris Combo played a more varied set than the retro swings bands. Los Angeles Times's critic Don Heckman declared, "The group's music fits into the swing revival category occupied by such bands as the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, but their range of styles is far too eclectic to be bunched into a single category." Most critics agreed, attributing to the group such wide-ranging characteristics as French cabaret, rumba, flamenco, Gypsy swing, cool jazz, African, Latin, and Middle Eastern styles.
Following on the heels of the success of their debut CD, Paris Combo released Living Room in Europe in 1999 and in the United States in 2000. Their third album, Attraction, delivered much of the same charm and solid musicianship as their first two recordings. Reviewing Attraction for All Music Guide, Chris Nickson summarized the band's appeal, declaring that "while there's nothing particularly modern about Paris Combo's sound, it doesn't deliberately try to be retro either—it simply takes elements from across the decades, grabbing at chanson, jazz, show tunes, some of the more esoteric elements of rock, and avant-garde, and mixes them into a whole that's fresh while retaining an almost atavistic familiarity."
In late 2004 Paris Combo released Motifs, but prior to recording this new CD, which was produced by respected American sound engineer Oz Fritz, the group toured extensively in order to refine their songs. As a prelude to the CD's U.S. release, Paris Combo performed with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and Moulin Rouge dancers at the Hollywood Bowl, in a show called "Night at the Moulin Rouge." With the exception of "Discordance," which was written by Razanajato, all the album's songs were written by du Berry. Anastasia Tsioulcas declared in Billboard that Motifs is "a required cocktail party soundtrack," emphasizing the mainstream appeal of the band, but Paris Combo still refused to be classified, nor did their mainstream appeal diminish their carefully crafted sound. Washington Post critic Mike Joyce wrote: "Engaging, clever and cutting by turns, it doesn't take long for Motifs to prove once again that Paris Combo has carved out a truly distinctive niche for itself in contemporary jazz."
Paris Combo, Pias, 1997; reissued, Tinder Records, 1998.
Living Room, Pias, 1999; reissued, Tinder Records, 2000.
Attraction, Polydor, 2001; reissued, Polygram International, 2001.
Live, Polydor, 2002; reissued, ARK 21, 2002.
Motifs, Polydor, 2004; reissued, DRG, 2005.
Billboard, June 26, 1999; January 22, 2005.
Boston Globe, January 6, 2005.
Boston Herald, January 9, 2005.
Chicago Tribune, January 21, 2001; January 12, 2005.
Gazette (Montreal, Quebec), January 21, 2005.
Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1999; March 15, 1999; May 4, 2002; September 16, 2004.
New York Daily News, July 21, 2002.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), January 12, 2001.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 17, 2005.
Washington Post, March 12, 1999; July 10, 2003; January 7, 2005.
"Paris Combo," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 1, 2005).
"Paris (Combo) by Night," Atomic,http://www.atomicmag.com/articles/1999/paris_combo.shtml (March 1, 2005).
"Paris Combo's Multicultural 'Motifs,'" NPR Morning Edition,http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4467624 (March 1, 2005).
Paris Combo Official Website, http://pariscombo.artistes.universalmusic.fr/ (March 1, 2005).
"Paris Combo," Radio France Internationale,http://www.rfimusique.com (March 1, 2005).
"Paris Combo," Rock Paper Scissors,http://www.rockpaperscissors.biz (March 1, 2005).
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