by Mike Telin

Paris-ComboThe story of Paris Combo began in the early 1990s when vocalist Belle du Berry, guitarist Potzi and percussionist François Jeannin began performing together in Paris as members of a quirky retro revue. In 1994 Australian trumpeter and pianist David Lewis joined the group and the group honed their sound while playing in cafes and on barges along the Seine.

Since the release of their debut CD in 1997, Paris Combo has released three internationally acclaimed CD’s and toured extensively in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Australia. Following a four year break, the group reunited in a rehearsal studio to compose new songs. After bassist Emmanuel Chabbey was added to the group’s lineup in 2011, Paris Combo returned to extensive touring and performing new material that would evolve into “5” their fifth CD. In conjunction with that release, on Friday, April 19, Paris Combo kicks off their 12-city US tour on the stage of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium as part of the museum’s VIVA! & Gala series.

We spoke to David Lewis by telephone from Paris.

Mike Telin: Thanks for talking and we look forward to having you in Cleveland.

David Lewis: We’re looking forward to it. We played at the Museum about ten year ago and I understand that some changes have been made in the hall so we’re looking forward to going back and rediscovering the lovely venue.

MT: The CD arrived yesterday and I have not been able to turn it off.

DL: Fantastic! I’m happy you like it.

MT: I do. I also noticed on your website that you did all of the English translations.

DL: That’s right and I’m glad you got to the website because the idea was to make the lyrics accessible to English speaking audiences. And rather then printing them in the CD booklet, we decided to put them on the website, so I glad they’re of use.

MT: The site is great and quite helpful, especially for someone who only speaks tourist French like myself.

DL: I was like that until I came to France. I had studied French for six years during high school to no avail. Then when I came to France it began to kick in.

MT: I don’t need to tell you this, but there are a lot of plays on words in the lyrics. Were these easy to translate?

DL: No, it was not easy because there are some things that while they are word plays, they’re also playing on the sounds of the words as well. But I did have the advantage of having the author close by. So I did an initial translation and then went back to Belle and talked it over and she would say no, that’s not exactly what I meant. It also made me realize to an extent how I did not grasp all of the different layers of meaning in all of the songs. So it was a good learning experience.

MT: And Belle does write all the lyrics?

DL: There was one song on our third album that we co-wrote, but largely the lyrics on all of the albums are by Belle.

MT: The site also says the music is by Paris Combo; did you all have a hand in the arrangements?

DL: The difference with this album was that we did co-write all of the music together. On previous albums people would bring in songs or parts of songs. I think when we came back to work together again, we were more conscious of what really constituted the essential sound of the group. So when we sat down in the studio we’d come up with different grooves and melodies. A couple of the songs were brought in almost finished but most evolved in the rehearsal studio.

MT: You mentioned “the essential sound of the group.” How do you describe that sound?

DL: It’s actually a little hard to describe to anyone else because we’re all in the center of things, but it certainly is a hybrid because it’s combining things that don’t usually go together. There’s obviously an influence of French chanson. There have been different periods in French pop music where jazz played a very strong role. One was in the 1930’s and 40’s when Django Reinhardt began accompanying people, especially singers. Another period was in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with Michel Legrand. I think the group identifies with those periods, and jazz, which has been a popular music over the last century, is a big part of what we do. Improvisation is certainly a big part of it too.

We’ve had quite a bit a mainstream success in France. Paris Combo is a popular music project with a lot of different influences.

MT: I think that Rick, your publicist, describes the group’s sound quite well. He calls it a “unique mélange of colorful cabaret, elegant jazz, multicultural world music and sassy alterna-pop,” which I think is the best description of a group I’ve read in a long time.

DL: I liked it too — and that’s why you have a publicist. I think he was on a roll when he wrote that.

MT: Growing up in Australia, was French chanson a type of music that you were attracted to or did it happen after you relocated to Paris?

DL: I grew up in a small town in western Victoria in southeastern Australia. I was exposed to all types of music — classical, choral, brass bands — and I think what ever dividing lines between popular and classical music, or what they use to call highbrow music, were definitively smeared from a very early age. I grew up listening to all sorts of music. Growing up in the 70’s I sort of imagined that all types of music could co-exist and mix together.

When I came to France I played with African groups and met Belle du Berry and her musicians. Just hearing them play I would imagine all of the different directions and combinations we could come up with. I suppose that my background was just being exposed to a lot of different musical sounds and not having any hierarchy, musically speaking.

MT: For Belle, was this style something that was always in her voice or did it develop along the way?

DL: I think she developed along the way because she started quite late in music. She first sang in bands that were part of the post-punk movement in France. Then she went to bands that were exploring more music from the 1920’s and 30’s. I think it’s at that point that she started to explore the repertoire. Her singing is influenced and informed by the great French singers of the pre-war era. But she loves the B-52s as well and she brought all of that to the Paris Combo project.

MT: What strikes me about the group is that is does sound like a quintet, not just a singer with a four-member band. For example, your trumpet and the guitar solos are woven into the vocal lines.

DL: That’s nice to hear. That is essential and it goes back to what I was saying about spending a year in the rehearsal studio. I think it comes from the way in which we construct the music, using an improvisatory approach that still re-enforces the songs.

MT: And I do love your discrete use of various mutes and instruments, the trumpet and flugelhorn.

DL: Thanks. And another great model for this style are the great Billie Holiday albums when she was working with an ensemble of musicians. This sort of loosely arranged, improvisatory approach. These are something that Belle has listened to a lot.

MT: Will Friday’s show be only from this album or will you also include some of the group’s earlier music?

DL: It will be a mixture. I think we’ll probably play around seven songs from the new album and the rest of the material will be from the other four albums.

MT: So taking the break turned out to be a good thing for the group.

DL: Oh yes. I think that when we took the break it was something that we needed to do because we had been going nonstop for nearly ten years. And what’s great is that we’ve come back together with the experience of the first ten years and it’s like meeting up with an old friend again. We could take a few steps back and ask ourselves what have we been doing and proceed with renewed pleasure.

Published on April 16, 2013

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