Inspiration, mission and process

The inspiration to create a jazz repertoire of Gabriel Fauré’s 19th century songs began with Claudia’s love of Yves Montand’s ethereal version of Fauré’s Les berceaux) and by her fans’ response to her earlier recording of Lydia on the “Romance Language” album.

Several instrumental works of the French impressionist composers Fauré his colleague Claude Debussy and his student Maurice Ravel have been arranged for jazz piano and ensembles. Bill Evans, the Treya Ensemble and more recently Fred Hirsch are jazzers inspired by the jazziness of Fauré’s inventive harmonies. But returning to Fauré to supply standards for a jazz songbook has not been done before.

In 2004, Claudia and singer Daniel Neer selected 17 of Fauré’s 100 songs, defined stylistic transformations (“Spleen is definitely a blues. Les roses d'Ispahan will make a great pop ballad.”), suggested intertwining some jazz standards, and defined their roles and sometimes harmony lines for each song. As classically trained singers, what they needed most of all was the right jazz musician to make it happen, someone with expertise in jazz, French music and French language—someone like Dennis Luxion.

Daniel said at the outset, “The goal of the project is not to see how successful we can be in re-designing Fauré’s masterpieces. The goal is simply to communicate to people the beauty of melody, richness of language and relevance of characters in recognizable situations. These songs are about new love, loss of love, joy, sadness, youth, wisdom and hope. These songs are the new jazz standards!”.

Dennis established the ground rules for the jazz arrangements that he, and later Bobby Schiff, created:

  • Capture as much of Fauré’s original intentions as possible so that the songs remain recognizable. That is, melodies and counter-melodies are retained and key harmonies are often kept.
  • Maintain Fauré’s prosody (the way syllables and words are naturally stressed) and closely follow the dramatic intent of the lyrics. Care is given to retain the atmosphere evoked by Fauré though by different means.
  • But rework textures, secondary harmonies, orchestrations, and the sense of pacing.
  • Open up the structure of the songs by means of added introductions and endings, inserted measures, and interpolated instrumental solos, allowing the songs to breathe more and occupy an expanded time frame.
  • Instrumentation of piano, bass, drums and winds was chosen to achieve maximum color and versatility by the most economical means.
  • And like all good jazz, the music is conceived to be faithful to Fauré’s compositions while still allowing latitude for performer input.
  • Why does this work? As Claudia wrote in the original mission statement:
    The argument for “jazzing” the songs of Gabriel Fauré goes back to the inherent “jazziness” of his harmonic language. I have a hypothesis that with the best of New Orleans’ families sending their musical children to study in Paris, Parisian musical inventions (including Fauré’s songs) were surely resounding in Louisiana’s turn-of-the-century salons. And when the salon merged with the streets, when syncopated drums merged with clarinets and trumpet and piano, jazz happened.

    It is surprising that the synthesis of Fauré own songs with jazz hasn’t happened more frequently. A few songs (Après un rêve being the most well known) have gotten the instrumental jazz treatment, particularly in the genre of cool jazz associated with saxophonist Stan Getz and pianist Bill Evans. Yves Montand sang his own “music hall” version of Les berceaux, a song that later received an exquisite instrumental treatment by the Europe-based jazz Treya quartet. As they say in their promotional materials:

    “The Treya Quartet is convinced that, by lending these songs a ‘jazz sound’, a very simple and natural procedure has been implemented which was anyway about to happen in the magical history of French music. This ‘French feel’ in the jazz chords actually enhance the beauty, simplicity and purity of Gabriel Fauré’s melodic lines. They’re ideal songs for ballad arrangements.”

    However, until the Jazz Fauré Project, no one to our knowledge has extended the logic of that statement to SING the songs—a whole concert, a whole recording of them—in a jazz idiom. That is what we set out to do.