Article first published as Touched by Leo Ferre, My Search to Learn More About Roberto Cipelli on Blogcritics.
There is nothing like a pleasant surprise.
The other day, tucked in with a review copy of Matt Herskowitz's Jerusalem Trilogy that came in the mail, was another CD. It was a collection of songs in tribute to French composer and singer, Leo Ferre (there a couple of accent marks necessary over the 'e' in Leo and the last 'e' in Ferre, but word processing ignoramus that I am, have no idea how to get them there---so use your imagination); a composer I must admit I have never heard of. It was the work of a group of jazz musicians led by pianist Roberto Cipelli. I had never heard of Cipelli. I had never heard of any of the other musicians on the album. Moreover the album notes were no help; they were all in French or Italian , and although I had taken two years of college French back in the dim dark days beyond recall, it was only a word or two of the text that I could make out. When I checked to see who it was that was playing the beautiful trumpet solo on track five all I could find was someone playing the tromba. It's not French. Trumpet? Perhaps, but I don't have an Italian dictionary handy.
There was a publicity release with the CD, but it was after all a publicity release, not exactly unbiased reporting. I check the internet, first for Leo Ferre. The Wikipedia entry announces that it has "multiple issues." Wikipedia isn't the best of sources even without "multiple issues." I try the official Leo Ferre site. It's in French. I can't get the Google translator to work. I try a biography site in English. It has a paragraph of about a hundred words. He was born in Monaco in 1916. He was very important in the French song world, equated with the likes of Jacques Brel (at last, someone I've heard of). He was "involved in" anarchism. He died in 1993. He is, the entry concludes, "a great composer and writer of French songs." I give up. The publicity release has more information, although some of it seems to have been taken from the same site I was just surfing. It does add some information about his idea to set the work of some of the great poets to music, although I'm not quite clear about why this is so startlingly original. After all, the idea of setting great poetry to music is not exactly new.
I check the internet for Roberto Cipelli. Again there isn't much. What is there is in Italian, for the most part. He has a web site. The Leo Ferre album is featured. There are some pictures. He seems to have been born in Cremona; it looks like in 1958. That's about all I can get from the web page. He does have a Facebook page. He likes Alice Adams Tucker. I, of course, am not familiar with Alice Adams Tucker, although I'm willing to learn. So, it's back to the publicity release. In this case however there is not much information about the artist. Most of the release talks about the project and the individual tracks, which is fine, fine that is if you want the record label's take on its product.
Anyway, while I'm searching for information, I'm listening to the CD, and damned, if I don't like it. I import it to my iPod. I listen again. I like it again. Indeed, the more I listen, the better I like it. I don't know Roberto Cipelli, but he can swing when he wants to and do just as well with sensitive melodic melancholy. There is some really fine trumpet work by Paolo Fresu. He plays with a clarity of phrasing that is as sweet as anyone around. Their duet on "Colloque sentimental" is a masterly blend of mood and technique, ending with the horn holding a long note while the piano glides over. "Vingt ans" showcases the two musicians in an up tempo mode. Attillio Zanchi plays double bass and Philippe Garcia is on the drums.
There are vocals in French and Italian by Cipelli and Gianmaria Testa. Both have arresting voices in the gravelly straight ahead tradition of the French song stylists. They whisper of passion. Though there are lyrics printed for all the vocals, they are all in French and Italian. I have no idea what they're singing, but somehow it doesn't matter. Although I don't mean to suggest that I would turn my nose up at some nice English translation, if it had been kindly provided.
Not all of the songs are by Ferre. There is an Italian song, "Lontano, Lontano" by Luigi Tenco. "Free Poetique" is a chaotic piece by Cipelli which he feels capture's Ferre's poetic spirit in music. Cesase Pavese's poem, Il Blues dei Bluess is set to the music of "Saint-Germain-Des-Pres." There is even a poem of Paul Verlaine scattered through the tracks of the disc. The album is not intended as a collection of new arrangements of Ferre's work, rather it is, according to Cipelli, his attempt "to revisit it in his own personal way." Whether he succeeds in capturing the spirit of Ferre, I cannot tell you. What I can tell you is this. He has succeeded in producing a haunting album of music that almost transcends the need for meaning.