Sometimes great successes can come from minor setbacks. One day in the middle of 2015, French jazz vocalist Camille Bertault failed a conservatory exam, and to boost her spirits, she wrote a set of French lyrics to one of John Coltrane’s best-known compositions. The words spoke of the “Giant Steps” it took to realize that one’s own expectations are more important than the expectations of others. Then she cued up Coltrane’s original recording, set up a video camera, and recorded her performance, which she later uploaded to Facebook for her friends. The video turned up on Jam of the Week and went viral within days. Non-French speakers missed the message of Bertault’s lyrics, but viewers around the world were amazed with the uncanny accuracy with which she scatted Coltrane’s blinding-fast solo.
Over the past year, Bertault has become an internet sensation. She has created dozens of videos for her YouTube and Facebook pages, and nearly all of them have received thousands of views. Bertault makes the videos visually interesting by recording in different locales and in varied costumes. On one clip, Bertaud puts the camera at a low angle and sings through Brad Meldhau’s blistering solo on “Anthropology” while wearing a green turtleneck sweater, red suspenders, a tight-fitting hat and dark shades. On another Mehldau solo, she sits on the floor in a sleeveless black blouse while holding a black cat tightly in her arms. The cat also appears in another video where Bertault lays on her bed singing a solo by trumpeter Eric LeLann, but the feline leaves the frame shortly thereafter—apparently this cat is not a trumpet fan! She brings a fresh subtext to Hermeto Pascoal’s “Frevo Novo”, where she creates a one-way argument with her listener, adding in hilarious eye rolls that are accentuated by her cats-eye glasses.
Not all of Bertault’s videos are solo transcriptions. She created a stunning solo version of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” using a pedal looper, performed a series of duets with Swedish jazz singer Sofie Sörman (including a remarkable setting of Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin”) and followed up her transcribed solo video of Cory Henry’s solo on Snarky Puppy’s “Lingus” with a live version of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” featuring Henry on keyboards. The latter video was made at Duc des Lombards, a Paris nightclub located close to Bertault’s apartment. Henry recognized Bertault in the audience and invited her to join him on stage. Bertault says that she wrote the French lyrics in about five minutes.
Many of the diverse talents Bertault displays in her videos stem from her years of intensive training. She was born in Paris 29 years ago. Her father Paul is a sound engineer and amateur pianist and he sparked Camille’s first interests in jazz and piano (the father and daughter recently collaborated on a lovely video version of Billie Holiday’s “You’ve Changed”). She began formal studies at the Paris Conservatory when she was 8 years old. The family moved to the south of France when she was 13, and she transferred to the Conservatory in Nice. While in school, she studied piano, composition, and opera, but she decided that classical music was too restrictive for her style. She studied theater and wrote a couple of plays before trying jazz singing at the age of 25. While she studied with vocalists Sara Lazarus and Pierre Bertrand, much of her influence comes from instrumentalists, a fact that becomes very clear when listening to Bertault’s recordings. A demo recording from 2013 (with her father on piano) includes five tracks, and all but one is based on classic instrumental recordings. Camille’s French lyrics are impressive on this short program, and her scat solos show that she had already developed her own style. By the time she recorded her most recent CD, “En Vie”, her talents had progressed to an astonishing level.
Unfortunately, Sunnyside’s booklet includes only Bertault’s French lyrics without any translations. However, she described some of the lyrics to Sunnyside’s Bret Sjervin, and excerpts of his summary are offered here:
“Quoi De Plus Anodin”…is the story of a pickpocket, mirroring this hard life with a light but empathetic blues. The accelerated “Course” brings to mind the fast paced life of the city…. Bertault’s lyrics to …“Infant Eyes” bring to mind the purity and magic seen in the glimmer of a child’s eyes. Inspired by a witty line of Jacques Brel, the title of “En Vie” is wordplay on “alive” and “envy,” as the song itself is just as lively. Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” is reborn as “Cette Nuit” or “Tonight,” where Bertault imagines a dream about peacocks in a strange ambiance, including colorful plumage. Another clever turn of phrase is in the title of “A La Mer Tume,” which means “to the sea” but could be misinterpreted as “amertume” or “bitterness,” with allusions to the sea, waves and drowning in bitterness. Bertault’s “Double Face” is about everyone’s two sides, her wordless vocals and her effervescence carrying this lively performance. The narrative of “Tatie Cardy” is about an old woman having tea who suddenly feels the ground shake from an explosion, making her heart race. This theme is echoed wonderfully by the speedy ensemble and their dynamic lyricism. “Prélude” is Bertault’s lovely interpretation of Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” and her original lyric is about the sensation experienced just before a kiss. “Satiesque” is written with the impressionist composer Erik Satie and his influence in mind.
Camille Bertault will present her US CD release party at Mezzrow’s in New York City on June 7, 2016.