Henri Salvador: Room with a View

Henri Salvador
Room with a View
Blue Note

You can’t avoid it. I’ve tried to listen to this as a standard album and to judge it accordingly. It can’t be done. There is no forgetting the fact that the singer of this collection of wistful love songs is 84 years old. That’s right 84. Henri Salvador has been a star of the Paris nightclub scene since 1935. He is, inevitably I suppose, something of a French institution and, when this disc was released two years ago (as Salle avec Vue), it became one of the year’s best-selling albums. Blue Note have got hold of it, got Salvador to add some English lyrics to a couple of songs and seem to be hoping to cash in on the Buena Vista project’s startling success.

They may be right, for Room with a View is a perfectly charming album, made up of a mixture of gentle bossa novas and cabaret chansons. The voice is a little shaky at moments, but given that a major influence appears to be Antonio Carlos Jobim, that does not really matter. Jobim himself was never much of a singer, but effective enough. Salvador’s tones operate similarly. This is no dog-walking-on-two-legs affair. When I say you cannot help remembering the artist’s age, it is simply because he can still sound convincingly seductive on what is essentially a collection of love songs. He must have been irresistible in his prime.

It is hard to say when that prime might have been though. Salvador was born in 1917 in French Guinea. This means he is some seven years the senior of Sekou Toure, who led the country to independence and who died nearly 20 years ago. I mention this because although the promotional blurb makes much of Salvador’s playing with Django Reinhardt (quite rightly), he also represents that “Presence Africaine” in pre-war Paris which includes Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor. This was a period, not only of great French cabaret but of the formation of the concepts of Negritude and the beginnings of many an Anti-Colonial movement.

Nothing in Salvador’s biography (according to Blue Note) indicates any direct involvement in these movements. Yet when a proper cultural history of that period is written, the world of music might profitably be included alongside the political figures such as Franz Fanon. When Paris is cited as a relatively free creative space for African-American musicians and artists, the presence of black people from the French Colonies is often forgotten as a factor. It wasn’t just Sartre and Juliette Greco, you know.

Actually Salvador’s name is often linked with one white intellectual, the poet and jazz fan Boris Vian. Vian is not as well-known outside France as he should be and his championing of Salvador from the late ’40s is itself noteworthy. Vian was a good musical judge. As to Fanon, he arrived in Paris in 1943, during the Nazi occupation, in which period Salvador was living and performing in Brazil. That is where nearly all the influences on this album come from. An African, apprenticed in the jazz/French song mix of the ’30s, finds his voice by learning the Samba rhythms and song stylings of Rio and Sao Paolo. That music in turn developed from the musical culture the (predominantly) Angolan slaves brought to Brazil. As an example of Gilroy’s concept of “The Black Atlantic” this could hardly be bettered.

Salvador returned to France and had a successful recording career, blending pop and the newly-acquired Brazilian style. Eventually he ended up in television. While others of his generation were struggling with colonialism and independence, he was presenting game shows. Make of that what you will, I mean no slur on Salvador. But,as this record proves, music remained his first love. If I have dwelt on a history that may not seem to have much bearing on songs about dancing in the moonlight and endless declarations of “Amour”, it is because I think there is something more happening here than merely quaintness.

A significant chunk of Parisian musical heritage has been captured in 14 modest little love songs. It has been stylishly dressed in early bossa nova’s best apparel. This heritage includes jazz, the French intellectual and cabaret sub-cultures — and colonialism and race. Scratch the surface of Salle avec Vue and a whole submerged history of cross-cultural influences and formations stands revealed.

But what about the music itself? Well,imagine yourself in some late 1950s club where a rather superior jazz group is giving Latin tinged readings of French love songs and you are close. Classy guests like Toots Thielmans (harmonica on “Un Tour de Manege”) and Daniele Scannapieco (lush sax on “J’ai Vu”) add to the elegance. Female singers appear from time to time (including Francoise Hardy). They are as chic and breathy as you would expect and the whole shebang is romantic with as capital an R as is imaginable.

Some jazz fans have already had several fits about such soft, easy listening fare appearing on the famous label. So, its not Charlie Parker but nor is it, as one critic has suggested, Engelbert Humpedinck. If you can’t tell the difference between tacky Las Vegas schmaltz and, well, non-tacky Parisian schmaltz, then that’s your loss. It is slushy, it is sentimental, but it’s so splendidly executed. The music is every bit as jazzy as Stacey Kent or Diana Krall, not that that proves much, but the real jazz critics love them. Essentially, an exercise in 20th century popular love song, interestingly dressed in Afro-Parisian garb, the key point is that it nearly all works.

And Salvador is good throughout. He sustains a mood of late night wooing and wistful seduction with conviction and much suavity. The English tracks were a mistake (let’s face it why would anyone want to translate a love song from French into English, for Heaven’s sake?). “J’ai Vu” and “Je Sais que Tu Sais” are tender, uncynical, have delightful string arrangements. They are, in fact, perfect French pop-ballads. Everything is very old-fashioned (“Mademoiselle” will have rock fans running for the hills) but, as stated, Salvador is 84.

This sold in France as nostalgia, postmodern lounge and because of affection for a national treasure. It will probably only be the neo-lounge factor that will prove marketable elsewhere. I would suggest you go to the more Jobim-based tracks first (“Jardim” is the best, the much played “Room with a View” is actually the weakest). If those appeal, try the ballads. If “J’ai Vu” doesn’t strike you as lovely, you deserve to be alone next Valentine’s Day. For that’s what this album is in essence, the musical equivalent of a bouquet of roses.

Perhaps, after a couple of listens, you may want to have a think, however briefly, about a young African musician trying to survive in a European capital in the late ’30s. You may even want to ponder survival through the political and cultural changes of the latter half of the 20th century. Maybe not, it’s up to you. Much of the material on this album will sound “corny” to modern ears. The sentiments expressed and the story behind them suggest something rather more complex. Salvador’s world is soft-centered, certainly, but it is not without depth.