“Before Aznavour despair was unpopular” (Jean Cocteau)
Algerian born Charles Aznavour (1924-2018), “The Frank Sinatra of France,” was additionally a songwriter, singer and, like Ol’ Blue Eyes, an actor. He recorded over 1,200 songs in nine languages authoring or co-authoring 1,000. As a young man, he sang and danced in clubs before beginning to write in 1944. About that time, Aznavour was discovered by Edith Piaf who became friend and mentor. The artist’s breakthrough arrived with an Olympia Theatre appearance in 1956. He achieved worldwide fame.
With a tenor voice uniquely shaded towards baritone and his heart in his throat, Aznavour can’t be copied. He can, however, be celebrated. Formidable!, predominantly in French, does just that. (A description of what some of the foreign language lyrics are about would serve.) The multi-talented Jules Grison sings, dances, plays guitar and piano with skill and energy.
“J’aime Paris au mois de mai”: I love Paris in May/when buds break into blossom again and a novel youth/takes hold of the old city…Unlike the honoree, Grison bounces, gestures, dips, and turns. Long and lean, he moves rather like the young Dick Van Dyke. Hirschfeld would’ve drawn him with extended arms.
Photo by Marta Pitch
A couple of jazz/pop selections precede the iconic “La boheme,” finds him miming drawing as the face of Aznavour comes up line by line on a screen behind him. (An unnecessary gimmick). We begin to hear a warmed up voice and to see awareness of lyrics. On accordion, Frederic Viale’s fingers move like hummingbird wings.
Dance in the old fashioned way/Won’t you stay in my arms?/Just melt against my skin/And let me feel your heart…(“Dance in the old fashioned way.”) The artist selects an audience member, takes her onstage and partners. She blushes, giggles, and gamely gives herself to young, handsome Grison. He kisses her on the cheek in parting. This is the turning point. From here on, the vocalist inhabits lyrics.
A lovely piano preface by Philppe Villa leads us into the solemn “La mama.” Sitting backwards on a chair, wrists crossed before him, the vocalist quiets: There is so much love/so much memories around you/you the Mother…He feels it. We feel it. “Jezebel” has the musical sound of Aznavour’s origins: This demon that burned my heart/This angel who dried my tears/Jezebel it was you… Jacket off sleeves rolled up, Grison seems obsessed with a woman dancing before him. Drums rule.
Guest Melissa Errico joins on “Une vie d’amour,” closely harmonized voices rising, melding as the two face one another holding hands. During “For me Formidable” the well known title song, Grison gleefully dances. The artist makes it a point to look AT his audience, not just into it, a definite asset. “J’me yoyaus déjà,” is a poignant, poetic story/song about an aspiring youth determined to conquer Paris and failing. Some phrases expressively arrive parlando.
Photo be Eric Carriere
“In this song, Charles wrote about a time when you might be arrested, passport confiscated, jailed or beaten” introduces the immensely affecting “Comme ils dissent” in English. It features a gay, secretly cross-dressing artist in love with a straight man. Both this and the preceding should be read to understand the power of Aznavour’s craft. Grison brings them home with skill. Phrasing is superb. At the end, the performer folds his arms and turns his back.
A beautiful arrangement of “Sa jeunesse” comes across despite Grison’s age compared to the songwriter: His youth/When one holds/Between his hands/This wealth/Of being twenty/Tomorrows/Full of promises/ When love leans on us/To give us its sleepless nights…Alone on stage at the piano, he then offers the familiar “Yesterday When I Was Young” in duet with a recording of Aznavour. One can actually hear the difference in life experience. Longingly, “She” follows, also in English.
A succession of encores greet audience applause. The thoroughly entertaining evening is a vocal portrait. Jules Grison channels the icon with talent and love.
Note to Monsieur Marsalla: Removing the screen after showing images of the artist or succeeding photos of Paris would allow us to focus on stage talent without being unduly distracted. This and intermittent flashing, colored lights make the show look cheap – which is it decidedly not. Give your artists credit enough to hold us.
Opening photo: Marta Pitch
Formidable Aznavour– 100th Anniversary World Tour
Featuring Vocalist Jules Grison
Guest Melissa Errico
Produced and Directed by Gil Marsalla
Piano – Philppe Villa
Accordion – Frederic Viale, Double Bass – Giliard Lopes, Drums – Benoit Pierron
Town Hall January 13, 2024