may not play classical music. But it’s quite the class act.
The quintet, which closes Town Hall’s 2013-2014 Global Rhythms season on Friday, April 18, blends gypsy jazz, cabaret influences, art song, Middle Eastern tonalities and the odd bit of psychedelia in tunes that are quirky, melodic and instantly memorable.
Even if you don’t speak French, it’s easy to pick up on band members’ maverick sensibility — and to hear what gifted musicians they are.
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Formed in Paris in 1994, the band consists of lyricist-chanteuse Belle du Berry, trumpeter-keyboardist David Lewis, a guitarist who goes simply by Potzi, double-bass player Emmanuel Chabbey and drummer François Jeannin.
In a phone interview from Paris earlier this month, Lewis explained that he and du Berry are a longtime couple (their romance started the same time the band did) and that, while Paris has been his home for 30-odd years, it’s a long way from where he started: Hamilton, Australia, a country town 200 miles west of Melbourne. From an early age, however, France was on his radar.
“My mother was a French teacher and also a music teacher,” he says, “and we listened to a lot of French music. … There’s definitely a very strong Francophile tendency in the family.”
When he was 10, the family visited New Caledonia, a French island territory northeast of Australia, to get a taste of French culture.
“I guess once you’ve eaten the croissants and heard the beautiful French songs,” Lewis quips, “you never look back.”
He left Australia to study classical trumpet in Scandinavia in 1980, transferred to the Paris Conservatory in 1982, and has been based in the French capital ever since.
He and du Berry met while performing at Cabaret Sauvage (“a kind of cabaret-circus revue”). She introduced him to her band, and soon Paris Combo was launched.
“The main thing that happened when I came into the group was we started writing our own material,” he says. “So we went from a group that was very much informed by gypsy swing and songs of the ’30s … to a group with our own compositions, weaving other influences into the music.”
Du Berry writes all the lyrics, which tend toward the droll and surreal. In “Mais Que Fait la NASA” (“But What’s NASA Doing About It”), she lists an array of cosmic phenomena — stupefying comets, anxious meteors, a wandering black hole — and then asks, “But what’s NASA doing about it?” In “Pourquoi le Vaches” (“Why Cows”), she ponders the allure of cows, the repulsive qualities of spiders and people’s “indifference” to chickens, before closing the song by crooning, “But you — you are neither a cow nor a spider nor a chicken … and I love you, yes, yes, I love you….”
“Often there’ll be some quite incongruous words or ideas. … The members of the group don’t have any say at all in the lyric content,” Lewis says with a chuckle. “It’s total domination, in that sense.”
Their new album, “5,” is Paris Combo’s first release in nearly a decade. (During that time du Berry and Lewis released their own offbeat CD, “Quizz.”) Despite the long break, “5” finds the band sounding as fizzy and fresh as ever.
At Town Hall they’ll perform a mix of new and old material, including one gorgeous staple of their repertoire, “Sous la Lune” (“Beneath the Moon”), in which Lewis plays a trumpet solo with the bell of his instrument immersed in water, creating an otherworldly sound.
“That’s one of the songs that will always be there, because that’s such a unique moment,” he says. “People hear it as a musical event, rather than just a trick.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org