Monday, April 08, 2013

Jacques Brel and Jack L

Today, 8 April, would have been the birthday of Belgian-born singer-songwriter, actor/director Jacques Brel. He died in 1978 from lung cancer, aged 49.

French, or French language, vocalists tend to be an acquired taste for some of us - like anchovies. I'm not much of a Francophile myself, so I'm one who didn't acquire the taste, doesn't manage to access the right wavelength for Brel's own passionate, dark and rather ragged-sounding versions of his angry or sorrowful songs.....though I can understand what critics of English versions are getting at. If, as purists and snobs say, the songs lose something in translation, it doesn't matter, because in the hands of a gifted song translator they can, sung well, still shine in a different, more generally accessible way.

Mort Shuman and Eric Blau, two translators of Brel's work, were responsible for introducing Jacques Brel to audiences in the USA. They created a revue, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, comprising translations of his songs. It opened off-Broadway in January 1968. Poet Rod McKuen translated some of Brel's songs too. Artists too numerous to mention here have recorded English translations, most popular have been: Jacky, The Port of Amsterdam, If You Go Away, and Seasons in the Sun. English translation of the latter is particularly detested by Francophiles because it loses the original thrust of the song whose French title was Le Moribond.

A few vocalists seem to have felt special affinity to Brel, I've mentioned one of these in an archived post : Scott Walker (see HERE). Marc Almond discovered the Brel influence and recorded a full album of his songs. I came across another another Brel aficionado during my wander through YouTube: Irish vocalist Jack Lukeman also known as just "Jack L" (get it?) This was a new name to me, but he's a super vocalist - I'll be acquiring some of his CDs - he ought to be better known!

Jack L IS known to frequenters of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, the Glastonbury Festival in England, and has performed in the Royal Albert Hall in London. He has sung with some big name stars from both sides of the Atlantic yet somehow has slipped through the music industry's cracks in the USA. He has an enthusiastic bevy of fans in his native Ireland, with several CD and DVD releases to his name. According to commenters at YouTube his stage performances are something to behold; he is, apparently a born showman as well as a superb and emotional vocalist. In 2003 Lukeman performed a record breaking run of 35 shows in Dublin with the songs of Jacques Brel, "Chez Jack L".

Of Brel himself it was said that: " see Jacques Brel perform live was an extraordinary was indescribable. ........... What was it exactly about Brel that could have this effect on audiences? Apparently, it didn't even matter whether you understood his French lyrics or not. The music cast its spell and the truth of his performance took you somewhere. Songs with themes of love, cities, streets, smells, drugs, war, loss, death, broken dreams . . . all with raw human emotion. Songs with stories, wit, pathos, tragedy – and always, the human condition . . . but never forgetting that life, with all its complexities, shows us much humor."
(See HERE)

By the way, she said donning her amateur astrologer's hat, Jack Lukeman has Sun in Aquarius with Sun in exact trine to Uranus (born 11 February 1973). Jacques Brel, with Sun in Aries had Mercury conjunct Uranus (Aquarius's ruling planet), so there's a clear astrological link - perhaps reflecting Jack L's feelings of affinity with Jacques Brel's music?

Possibly best known of all Brel songs was Ne me quitte pas (literally translated: "Don't Leave Me"). Rod McKuen's English translation, titled If You Go Away is less angst-ridden than the original, lending itself to a more melodic but still emotional rendition. Ne me quitte pas was written in 1959 allegedly after Brel's mistress "Zizou" left him. She was pregnant with his child, but he refused to acknowledge he was the father. Zizou had the child aborted. Brel said, in interview years later, that the song is not a love song, but is about the cowardice of men.

First, a version by the composer himself, then Jack L's interpretation, which I think is is one of the best, if not THE best (even including Sinatra's - and for me to say that is very unusual!)

Just as a passing thought, having listened to many other versions of that song via YouTube, I wondered why there's none with a jazzy leaning. I could easily imagine a gorgeous Miles Davis or Johnny Hodges-type solo, mid-track, the melody seems to cry out for something like that. I found Helen Merrill's very nice rendition of the song with a solo by Stan Getz at the beginning. Other than that, there's a version by Acker Bilk, but not on You Tube. It can be heard HERE - by clicking on "play".

Two good articles on Jacques Brel are:
HERE and
Jack Lukeman's official website is HERE.

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