French-Dominican vocalist Cyrille Aimee to entertain guests at Cultural Trust gala

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When Cyrille Aimee sings, her crystalline voice shimmers within an intoxicating blend of gypsy swing, jazz and Brazilian rhythms provided by her band. The name of her seventh recording, released last month, is “It’s A Good Day,” and that is a fine description of the 30-year-old vocalist’s career so far.

The vocalist, whose name is pronounced SUR-real M-A, won the Montreux Jazz Festival’s Vocal Competition in 2007. In 2012, she won first place at the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. Last November, she acted and sang with Bernadette Peters in an Encores Special Presentation of Stephen Sondheim’s music at City Center in New York City.

Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Decorated tent at Seventh Street and Penn Avenue and the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown.

“It was really my first time in the Broadway world. It was really a great experience,” she said during a telephone interview Tuesday from Brooklyn, N.Y., where she has lived for the past five years. 

Ms. Aimee, who performs Saturday night at the O’Reilly Theater during the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s annual gala, has a voice that is breathy, girlish and, at times, seductive. Her tone and phrasing may remind some listeners of Stacey Kent, a renowned American singer and Grammy Award-winning artist. 

Born in France to a French father and Dominican mother, Ms. Aimee grew up in Samois-sur-Seine, the village where legendary gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt retired and where an annual musical festival is held in his honor each June. As a teenager, she was fascinated by the annual gathering of itinerant Romany musicians.

“At first I was just really obsessed with their way of life and the culture. It was so new and so beautiful. I became friends with them. I wanted to be around them and film them. I also like their language,” she said. 

But her parents were concerned.

“People were telling my parents, ‘They have a bad reputation.’ They thought the gypsies were going to take me and marry me. At first, my parents grounded me. I had to sneak out through my bedroom window.” 

When she was 14, a Romany musician gave her a red guitar and taught her to play it. In exchange she taught him how to read French.

“I would teach him the alphabet. They don’t go to school,” she said.

His brother taught her the words to a song called “Sweet Sue,” which she sang for a group of Romany people one rainy night.

“We all squeezed into a bus and we were jamming and I sang the song,” she said. When she saw their smiles, she realized she wanted to spend her life singing.

“I was so in love with this kind of music and the way that the gypsies live their music. They need it as much as they need food. It’s music made with the heart. You can express how you are feeling at that very second.”

She studied jazz performance at SUNY’s campus in Purchase, N.Y., where she focused on jazz instrumentation, harmony, rhythm and music composition. Since 2005, she has experimented with a loop pedal, an electronic instrument.

“As a singer, you can’t make chords with your voice, not like a piano or a guitar. A lot of singers dream of being able to do that. The loop pedal allows her to record her voice so she can sing over herself. 

In December, she will return to Broadway in a production called “Cafe Society.” Ms. Aimee said singing onstage gives her the same feeling as when she backpacks through Europe. Since 2006, she has spent a bit of each summer traveling with a tiny backpack, singing on street corners in Spain and Italy.

“You’re always on your toes. You don’t feel the same way as you were feeling yesterday.”

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