It’s been suggested to me that I might write too much, so here is my compact review of singer Hetty Kate‘s new CD, UNDER PARIS SKIES: “When I finished listening to the closing track, I wanted to hear it all over again. I cam completely charmed.” And you can buy it here — $10 digital, $18 tangible.
Might I need to explain more? This is Hetty’s ninth CD, and I first encountered her — on disc and in person — in 2014, and was charmed. I wrote about her here and here. The venue she performed at was terrifically noisy, so my videos were unusable, but Hetty was delightful — not, to quote Mildred Bailey, a bringdown.
UNDER PARIS SKIES is mostly — but not completely — a CD of “French songs.” I put the phrase in quotation marks because for some singers it will might have been a selling gambit. “What shall we do, now that I’ve done my Disney album and my holiday album? I know, ‘French songs’! That’ll sell like [insert appropriate French delicacy here]!” But in a world of lovely (Photoshopped or otherwise) and beautifully styled young maids who present themselves as chanteuses, and create discs where the best thing is the cover, she is happily free from artifice.
Each song is its own particular pleasure. There are a dozen, harking back to the records of my earlier life, reassuring. But before I say another word about the music, I would ask Hetty to tell us about the genesis of this disc.
In January 2017, I moved by myself from Melbourne, Australia, to Paris, France. I can’t tell you one particular reason why, but I can tell you I was ready, and it felt right. Moving to Paris was, and is, one of the most rewarding, and challenging, things I’ve ever done.
I love to sing standards, and I chose these beautiful songs to represent the myriad emotions I felt before, during and after my arrival. I flew away from the people and the things I love to try something new, and as I tumbled into France, brave, joyful, hopeful and unprepared, I broke my heart and fell in love again a million times. Sometimes great distance allows us to see clearly, and sometimes absence does make the heart grow fonder.
I must add that many of these songs are for friends who were kind to me, friends who have inspired me, and friends I miss when I’m in either France or Australia. So, it’s fitting to think of this album as a love song, to two cities, to new and old friends, and to being brave.
This album took a somewhat meandering path along the boulevards of Paris before it reached its final destination. Now that it’s here I hope you enjoy it.
That says a great deal about Hetty — not only her peregrinations, but her attitude, gracious, open-hearted, and warm. That attitude comes through the songs, but the CD is not simply a swoony paean to the city of the most formulaic sort. Rather, Hetty, without melodrama, has a splendid intelligence about the way to set each song off to its best. You might think of her as an intuitive jeweler who knows how to present even the smallest stone so that it gleams memorably.
In this, she is aided immeasurably by guitarist James Sherlock and string bassist Ben Hanlon — neither of whom I’d heard of before, but in this three-quarters-of-an-hour CD I came to think of them as modern masters, subtle, gently incisive soloists and accompanists. UNDER PARIS SKIES becomes in the first minutes a gratifying conversation among equals who never compete for our attention. As an aside, the recording quality is a joy, and I understand that James and Ben have made their own duo CD. Meaning Hetty no disrespect, I would like to hear that as well.
Hetty herself has a very mobile voice and vocal texture: she can be passionate but she avoids aiming for Piaf, or, for that matter, the conscious little-girlishness of Dearie. Her sound is sweet but she can be tart, and her phrase-ending vibrato seems emotive but never melodramatic. Her voice has a slight reediness, which is very endearing. At times, she has a speaking directness, but she is always singing. Her phrasing intelligently follows the contours of the lyrics, but it’s never a rigid up-and-down. Her diction is superb (and her vowels are deliciously cultured) even on the most elaborately treacherous set of lyrics, and she makes each song completely believable . . . but with layers that emerge as we listen and listen again.
The disc begins, and woos us, with AZURE-TE, which some singers have so dampened with unshed tears that the result is soggy. But Hetty, James, and Ben realize that it is a song about songs about Paris — every cliche Velcro-ed in place — so there is an amused lightness about the performance. I was reminded slightly of Jean Sablon, warning us about the wolf, but more subtly, the way Basie would play a very slow blues, reminding us that playing sad music didn’t mean he had to be sad himself. ON THE STREET WHERE YOU LIVE rocks from the first note, the three voices enjoying themselves thoroughly, and the longest track on the CD ends in a flash.
I said that each song was a small drama shaped by Hetty, and ONCE UPON A SUMMERTIME has a great deal of emotional energy, as Hetty, rubato, begins in duet with Hanlon’s arco bass for the first chorus — shifting into waltz time for the second chorus, then to rubato for Hanlon (who is a string quartet on his own): quite amazing. Should you think I exaggerate, listen:
A hilariously energized GET OUT OF TOWN follows — where Hetty’s second chorus is resonantly wittily convincing (I remember thinking, “She must be a powerfully charged opponent in a romantic argument, winning points while smiling broadly”): Sherlock’s playing is a lesson in spare orchestration. Guitar fanciers in the audience may fuss over who he Sounds Like; for me, I hope he and Ben are accepting the best students and transforming lives.
IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW, a song flattened by over-performance, is uplifted here, because of Hetty’s sweet deep understanding of the lyrics, her understated yet vibrating sincerity. How gentle yet compelling her voice is; how unerringly warm and — to make the cliche apt — how “pitch-perfect”!
We have to come down from such a peak, and DARLING, JE VOUS AIME BEAUCOUP is just the thing, where Hetty can gleam at us, savoring the unspoken comedy of the English speaker who wants better French to charm the Love Object. It is a sly soft-shoe dance of a performance, even though you won’t hear a foot being moved, unless they are your own. UNDER PARIS SKIES is, to me, sweetly trite, but Hetty, Ben, and James move through it at a brisk rocking 3/4. Since it’s the chosen title of the CD, I have to take it with generosity, and Hetty’s light approach rescues the song, as does the dancing playing of Ben and James, and the ending made me smile. “Stranger beware,” but we aren’t afraid.
LA BELLE VIE, is, I recognized immediately, THE GOOD LIFE, rendered in bright capital letters by Tony Bennett a year after Sasha Distel’s original version: Hetty’s French falls lightly on the ear, which is no surprise:
Hetty wrote above that a few of the songs on the disc were favorites of friends, and since AFTER YOU’VE GONE has no French connection, I must assume it has a place for that reason. I dreaded hearing this song, because it has been obliterated through a century of performance, but Hetty makes it come alive from the verse to her final improvisations, and Hanlon’s gorgeous accompaniment: arco and pizzicato, one of the tracks overdubbed but I couldn’t tell which, give this elderly tune a complete makeover in the name of Play and Playfulness. TOUT DOUCEMENT returns us to French, reminiscent of Dearie without coyness.
DOWN WITH LOVE comes across like a fusillade of pistol shots as every word explodes at the listener — not volume but precise enunciation, mixing hilarity and exasperation. “Take it away” is the most delightful rapid-fire triplet: all of Hetty’s shots are in the center of the target, and the performance is a lemony chaser to the amorous sentiments in other songs.
A NIGHTINGALE SANG IN BERKELEY SQUARE is both a favorite song — another one perilously over-familiar. But here, with Hanlon trotting alongside, after Hetty’s frankly impassioned reading of the verse, we are in the middle of the most seductive “rhythm ballad,” passions in swingtime:
For the first time in my listening history, I actually believe that the streets were “paved with stars.” The enchantment Hetty, James, and Ben create is flawless.
You can purchase this CD here. And I urge you to for purely selfish reasons: if this disc sells well, she will create more. Gifts to those who can hear.
May your happiness increase!