The Rag Messengers and Friends • Romances aux étoiles

The Rag Messengers and Friends • Romances aux étoilesI’d like to say that Britain is the spiritual home of jazz in Europe: we produced enduring heroes like Humphrey Lyttleton, Acker Bilk, Chris Barber, and Kenny Ball, plus bestselling bandleaders like Ronnie Scott and Ted Heath, extending the shelf life of that old-time trad and swing well into the bebop era. But I’d be wrong, obviously: the spiritual home of jazz in Europe is and has always been, without any shadow of a doubt, France.

And just as it was in the 1930s—when Reinhardt and friends gave music a whole new genre in manouche—our Continental neighbor, sometimes ally and occasional mortal enemy is still turning out top quality jazz records. See, for example, Romance aux étoiles, the first full-length release by a young French trio Ophélie Luminati (drums), Ezequiel Celada (clarinet, sax, flute) and Auguste Caron (piano, clavier). They’re joined by singers Audrey Leclair, David Costa Coelho and Vincent Bassou (who doubles on guitar), plus violinist Rachel Bader for a montagnes russes ride through the idiom.

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The result is a tour de force, heralding the arrival of a brilliant new outfit and making previous release Supraton in Marrakouch feel like a mere demo tape. That work was almost all instrumental and very piano-heavy—obviously an advantage, from my point of view—featuring covers of Jelly Roll Morton and other keyboard greats. It was almost all instrumental (except for the final track, which had an English vocal), with very strong performances all around, but it didn’t do much to distinguish itself from any number of other respectable rag records popping up on Bandcamp.

Romances aux étoiles improves on this solid debut in every way, constructing a veritable Versaille palace which is devilishly good and divinely French. It bounces from blues (“Je n’peux pas m’empêcher”) to boogie-woogie (“Une chèque en bois c’est drôle”) and back, boasting top-notch playing and singing—en français this time—throughout. The singers are endearing gallic caricatures, lacking only striped shirts and berets: passionate Coelho spits his lyrics melodramatically and in an impenetrable patois, while sweet-voiced chanteuse Leclair rolls her Rs like a Citroën deux chevaux winding through the bocage. She crowns the title track with a flirtatious laugh, and I can’t remember being so entranced by a voice since first hearing Annette Hanshaw and her coquettish “that’s all” sign off.

It’s impossible to choose a favorite from amongst these tracks. Could it be “Fleur bleue” which features particularly impressive piano work from Caron? Or “Une chèque en bois c’est drôle” (meaning “a wooden check [rubber check] is funny”), which is a humorous, language-swapped take on “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”? Perhaps it’s “La java des bombes atomiques,” originally performed by Boris Vian in 1955, which sees the French government accidentally detonated in a delightfully libertarian, wine-soaked waltz.


I’m currently learning French, if only for the sheer pleasure of its sound. Most of our gallic neighbors speak English, after all—they’re enlightened like that. It turns out that French vocal jazz records make a great learning aid, as their non-standard lingo has me swapping stale textbook phrases for more authentic-sounding alternatives. (What does “Clopin clopant” even mean? Google Translate has no idea.) So here’s hoping for another release from The Rag Messengers soon—partly for the enhancement of my linguistic education, but mostly for their music génial. Check them out on Bandcamp now, where their album is just a hair over $15.

Dave Doyle is a swing dancer, dance teacher, and journalist based in Gloucestershire, England. Write him at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @DaveDoyleComms.

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