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Posts tagged ‘Juliette Gréco’

‘When You Read This Letter’

Quand tu liras cette lettre 1To be frank, I went to see Jean-Pierre Melville’s Quand tu liras cette lettre (When You Read This Letter) at the BFI last night simply out of curiosity to see what sort of a leading actress Juliette Gréco was in 1953. Screened in a beautifully restored 35mm print, the film is an old-fashioned melodrama in which Gréco plays a novice nun who leaves the convent in order to look after her younger sister, the naive victim of a handsome, libidinous rotter. There’s a rape, a murder, an accidental death under the wheels of an express train, a very nice Cadillac Series 62 convertible, and some lovely scenes of the Cannes waterfront before it all got spoiled.

There’s also a soundtrack, featuring harpsichord doodling and sepulchral church organ. It was composed by Bernard Peiffer, a French pianist who worked with Django Reinhardt and many big American names in Paris in the early ’50s before emigrating to the US in 1954, where he settled in Philadelphia and earned the praise of critical heavyweights such as Barry Ulanov and Leonard Feather. Kidney surgery preceded his death in 1976, at the age of 53, two years after his final appearance in New York, at the Newport Jazz Festival. He had spent the last years of his life teaching piano — among his students was the young Uri Caine — and performing in clubs in his adopted home city.

I was familiar with his name, but I’d never really listened to him. So I went on to YouTube, and was immediately entranced by his versions of “Lullaby of Birdland”, made in Paris just before he left Europe, and “All the Things You Are”, a late recording from Philadelphia. Here, then, is another fine French jazz pianist of the post-war years, to rank with René Urtreger and Martial Solal, with a profound gift for improvisation and a technical imagination and a highly chromatic sensibility that may have been set free during his early studies with Pierre Maire, a student of the great Nadia Boulanger, and later at the conservatoires in Marseilles and Paris.

Thanks to the programmers at the BFI, then, for an unexpected bonus from their excellent Melville season. This was the second and last screening of Quand tu liras cette lettre, but the programme continues through September and includes the director’s classics: Le Deuxième souffleL’Armée des ombres and Le Samouraï.

Juliette Gréco paints her nails


Juliette Gréco is 90 today. When ill-health forced her to cancel last summer’s concert at the Barbican, I consoled myself with the memory of having seen her at the Royal Festival Hall in the early ’70s, when she was still in her compelling prime. I listened again to some of her countless recordings — the album (above) I bought when I was a teenager and  the early classics such as “Déshabillez-moi”, “Je hais les dimanches” and “Les Feuilles mortes”, from the era when she sang for Jean Cocteau and Albert Camus at the Tabou and her friends and admirers included Jean-Paul Sartre and Boris Vian, Jacques Prévert and Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens and Miles Davis.

And I listened to my all-time favourite, a wonderful song called “Mickey travaille”, which appeared on a 1993 album called just Juliette Gréco, written and produced for her by the great Étienne Roda-Gil, whom she had encountered in Paris at a meeting at the Ministry of Culture, where artists had been invited to discuss the imminent threat to the historic Olympia music hall (where she had sung for the first time in 1954). In her memoir, Je suis fait comme ça, published in 2012, she described the impression he made: “An outpouring of generosity and affection, a man of refinement and culture, attentive to others. But also fragile.” When she visited his apartment on the rue Cassini, he showed her the studio of his late wife, an artist. He had left it untouched since her death: “Even the roses, wilted, remained in their vases.”

She called him “a painter with words”, and for “Mickey travaille” he gave her an unforgettable entrance. Accompanied by the acoustic guitar of Caetano Veloso, strumming a light samba rhythm, she whispers: “Je peins mes lèvres et mes ongles en noir…” If the thought of Juliette Gréco painting her lips and nails black while awaiting her lover’s return doesn’t stir you, well…

* The version of “Mickey travaille” I’ve embedded here is not the one from the album, but a recording from a concert at the Olympia in Paris.