©Brett Delmage, 2018
Le Projet Brassens, (l-r) Pierre Monfils, Ed Stevens, Chris Smith, Hélène Knoerr, and Devon Woods, created an exciting mélange of the tunes of French icon Georges Brassens and jazz in their show January 28 at BDT.  ©Brett Delmage, 2018

Le monde de George Brassens / The World of Georges Brassens
Le Projet Brassens / The Brassens Project
Les Brasseurs du Temps, Gatineau
Sunday, January 28, 2018 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

In France, Georges Brassens' lyrics are studied in school. In 1967, he was awarded the Grand Prix de Poésie de l'Academie Française, France's highest poetry award. And for almost three decades from the 1950s until his death in 1981, he was a hugely popular chansonnier in that country.

He's also a strong inspiration for jazz musicians, including the local group Le Projet Brassens. They demonstrated how well Brassens could combine with jazz in their well-received tribute on Sunday evening.

Brassens' songs are both romantic and frequently satirical. His targets include religion, the ossified class structure, social conformity, and moral hypocrisy with a wicked gleam in his (metaphorical) eye. His debut album was entitled “Georges Brassens chante les chansons poétiques (et souvent gaillardes) de ... Georges Brassens” [“Georges Brassens sings the poetic (and often rather risqué) songs of Georges Brassens”].

His tunes' bright rhythms and strong melodies mean they're also a great source material for jazz. Near the end of his life, Brassens recorded an album of his songs with visiting American jazz artists, including Lionel Hampton, Clark Terry, and Eddie Davis. I've listened to it, and it's an impressively swinging collection. He also had a long-time musical friendship with jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet, who recorded several of his songs, and to whom he dedicated one of his songs.

For their show on Sunday, Le Projet Brassens chose 16 of the songs that Brassens recorded across his career, and presented them in original arrangements. The styles included jazz, swing, musette waltz, bossa nova, New Orleans, ballads, and reggae; some were presented as instrumentals, but most included the lyrics. The overall effect was fun and upbeat.

Vocalist and bassist Hélène Knoerr sang the lyrics in the original French, clearly and with considerable animation. In satirical songs like “Le gorille” (a protest song against the death penalty), she had the audience laughing at the lyrics and engaged with the story in the tune, while in reminiscent ballads like “Le parapluie”, her simple and intimate vocals added to the warmth of the arrangement.

Guitarists Ed Stevens and Pierre Monfils jointly propelled the music in double-guitar arrangements, switching the lead repeatedly and smoothly, with vibrant solos. Drummer Chris White supplied swinging and sizzling rhythms, and added bright chiming accents to “Chanson pour l'Auvergnat” with his triangle. Devon Woods frequently switched among instruments – clarinet, flute, melodica, soprano sax, tenor sax – to complement each tune. The result was a fast-moving dance, each musician smoothly interpreting the melody and kicking up the rhythm in his or her turn.

I particularly enjoyed the bluesy feel and syncopated guitars in “La Cane de Jeanne”, Brassens' tribute to the woman and her family who took him in when he fled Nazi factories during World War II and then housed him for two decades. Woods provided a deep and nuanced clarinet introduction to “L'orage”, complementing Knoerr's spirited vocals and Stevens' and Monfils' inflected guitar lines.

Woods also added a very French feel to “Les amoureux des bancs publics” with his melodica, sounding much like a harmonica. It was a nostalgic ballad, with Knoerr describing the joys of young love and the guitars and melodica sweetly outlining the intimate and memorable melody.

One original touch the group added was to add musical quotes from other well-known tunes in their arrangements – much to the amusement of the audience. So “La parapluie” quoted from Antonio Carlos Jobim's “The Waters of March”; the calypso beat in “Le gorille” was set off by a few bars from by Harry Belafonte's “Banana Boat Song”; “Je me suis fait tout petit” referenced Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's “Satin Doll”; “Chanson pour l'Auvergnat” was introduced by the instantly-familiar notes of the Pink Panther riff; and “Les copains d'abord” (about friendship that transcends death) began with the unmistakably funereal notes of “St. James Infirmary”. It was a clever touch, adding both familiarity and an ironic twist to the tunes.

Django Reinhardt, whose music Brassens loved, was a notable influence: the band opened with his “Swing 39”. They quoted from “Nuages in “L'orage” and “Minor Swing” in “Don Juan”, as well as including gypsy-jazz guitar lines in songs like “La princesse et le croque-notes”.

The choice of a reggae beat and quotes from Bob Marley's “No Woman No Cry” for “La non-demande en mariage” was a bit more of a stretch. The combination of smooth guitar lines and wistful clarinet worked well, but I wasn't sure if the song's anti-marriage/free love message was actually enhanced by the reggae setting.

Le Projet Brassens made its debut at Merrickville's Jazzfest last fall. The group is a collaboration between the long-time Ottawa jazz quartet Moonglow, and Monfils, who is a popular accompanist for many local jazz vocalists as well as performing in guitar duos. The musicians played comfortably together, and demonstrated a strong affinity for the material.

Knoerr had an easy rapport with the audience, as she introduced the songs and told stories about them. While the show was presented in French, the band handed out an impressive and fully bilingual written programme before the show, with background information on each of the songs, which made it much easier to understand the music.

The ticket sales for this show were substantial enough that it was moved from the lower to the larger upper level of Les Brasseurs du Temps, and almost every seat was taken. The audience was engaged in the music from the beginning, applauding strongly after solos and songs. One audience member told me that she loved Brassens' music and when she saw a sign that afternoon advertising the show, she immediately bought a ticket.

The show closed with Brassens' 1976 composition, “Don Juan”, a swinging instrumental introduced by Woods' shining lines on soprano sax and energized by accented guitar lines and quick musical quotes. Its final guitar flourish was greeted by cheers and very strong applause, and requests for an encore. After many suggestions from the crowd, the group responded with a reprise of the gentle and inviting “Les amoureux des bancs publics” – which received several Bravos as they closed.

Ottawa and Gatineau are often two separate worlds when it comes to music, with jazz generally an anglophone enterprise in Ottawa – and the reverse across the river. You could see that again at this show: we only recognized two Ottawa faces in the audience. Yet clearly jazz has a strong – and very interesting – past and contemporary lineage in France and in Quebec. Ottawa audiences are missing out on some fine music by not attending well-produced concerts like this one by Le Projet Brassens.

Set list:

All songs by Georges Brassens unless otherwise noted

Set 1

  1. Swing 39 / Django Reinhardt
  2. Le parapluie
  3. Le gorille
  4. Petite fleur / Sidney Bechet
  5. La cane de Jeanne
  6. Les amoureux des bancs publics
  7. Chanson pour l'Auvergnat
  8. Je me suis fait tout petit

Set 2

  1. La foule / Édith Piaf
  2. L'orage
  3. Dans l'eau de la claire fontaine
  4. Les trompettes de la renommée
  5. Les copains d'abord
  6. La non-demande en mariage
  7. La princesse et le croque-notes
  8. Don Juan

Want to learn more about Georges Brassens? A guide from Radio-Canada

The Ottawa Public library listing for the album Brassens made with jazz musicians: Georges Brassens et le jazz