Origin Records strikes again with another outstanding disc, this time from drummer Todd Bishop and an outstanding group playing the music of Serge Gainsbourg. I have to admit, I hadn't a clue who Serge Gainsbourg was, prior to seeing this disc make its way across my desk. Of course, curiosity got the best of me and I had to check out Gainsbourg's music to hear these songs straight from the source. What I heard was charming and familiar on a number of levels. At once, I heard the jazz meets French folk of Maurice Chevalier (or Edith Piaf), the soundtracks of any number of hip sixties and seventies movies, the nouveau chanson of Pauline Croze and even the music of Beck. What started off as, "These guys are doing a tribute to who?" quickly turned into, "Oh man, this really is hip!" I loved Bishop's disc from the second I put it in the CD player??I am a sucker for fat bass lines and funky drum grooves, after all. But now, armed with the knowledge of what this stuff sounded like the first time around, I was eager to go back again and check it out anew.
The one downside to this disc is a reasonable quibble, and it might do best to get it out of the way upfront: on far too many of these songs, Bishop and company stay too close to the originals. And while one wants to make sure that the songs are still at least a little recognizable, frankly, for all of Gainsbourg's qualities as a writer and arranger, he didn't always focus a lot on melody. Which is fine to an extent, because these songs seem to be just as much about texture as anything. But, in those instances, vocals can forgive a lot?or make a lot of things more forgivable. So, on tracks like "Ballade de Melody Nelson," where neither vocals nor melody are anywhere to be found, even these great musicians can fall a little flat. But, on "Bonnie and Clyde," where the melody is equally absent but Bishop's arranging is a little more aggressive, it works. On "Initials B.B." Bishop has it both ways, by utilizing a vocalist and keeping the arrangement pretty close to the original, he knocks one out of the park. But if the jazz purists might already be offended by the lack of more conventional jazz material, they'd lose their minds when confronted with a song that has more in common with Sonic Youth's "Bull In The Heather" than it does with "Autumn Leaves."
This disc does get your attention right off the bat. An insistent groove, some psychedelic keyboards and strings set up a nice melody on 69 Annee Erotique. The true pleasure to be found on this track, though, is the burning saxophone solo by Richard Cole, which really takes this disc up a notch.
"Cannabis" is aptly named, and moves at a slightly woozy pace. Again, Richard Cole lays down a ripping solo on tenor solo that really elevates the tune. While it has the feel of a song that should have closing credits rolling down a screen while it's played, it's a great jam and a nice display not only of Cole's chops, but also Bishop's arranging skills.
"New York, U.S.A." is heads and tails the best thing on this disc. It's also the song that strays farthest away from Gainsbourg's original intentions. Given a samba feel that is helped along by Blake Thomas' cuica, this one just flat out rocks. Much of the saxophone solo is given to the tenor/drums treatment, and without any chords behind him, Cole shows some flashes of early to mid-sixties Sonny Rollins (think "East Broadway Rundown"), and when Steve Moore shows up on the Rhodes to help guide things back home, the results are fantastic.
"Le Poinconneur des Lilas" and "Intoxicated Man" prove that Gainsbourg was capable of writing something somewhat akin to jazz, and Bishop's arrangement help to showcase that. Bishop rounds out the disc with one of the best pieces of sixties pop cheese that I've ever heard, in the form of "Je t'aime?Moi Non Plus." It's nice, it's pleasant and it's a good way to take this disc home.
69 Annee Erotique is an interesting album if taken on it's own terms. This disc is as multi-faceted as the artist to whom it is a tribute, and does a great job of covering a lot of those bases. While I think a more interesting album could have been made from the standpoint of seeing how much these songs could have been stretched, tinkered with and reassembled, the final results here are certainly fascinating. An entire album of music as adventurous as what is heard on "New York U.S.A." would have been more exciting from a jazzer's standpoint. But after listening to Bishop and crew on this disc a few times, I doubt that's what they were going for. Instead, we've gotten a jazz crew's take on the music of one of France's legendary composers and performers. Todd Bishop aimed to stay true to Gainsbourg's vision instead of creating his own, and in the process made a pretty compelling album. I'm certainly looking forward to more from this group in the future.