French vocalist returns to Vail in dynamic new duo

Cyrille Aimée and Michael Valeanu are poised to hypnotize Vail Jazz audiences with one-of-a-kind stage magic

Genetically speaking, Cyrille Aimée is not a gypsy. But she always has been at heart. The 30-year-old grew up in the small town of Samois-sur-Seine in northern France and was constantly intrigued by the caravans of musicians and gypsies that would plant themselves in her neighborhood every summer for the annual Django Reinhardt festival.

“The Django festival was part of my life even before I wanted to be a musician. I’d go run around in the street for the festival. It was free for little kids … all the other kids were running around. But little by little I started to be interested in the music part of it,” she says.

Stemming from a spontaneous but circus-like episode when Aimée found herself pedaling down the street on her bike with three gypsy girls packed on it, it wasn’t long before she became an honorary member of the visiting clan.

“A couple of gypsies came over and said I had a nice bike. Three of them hopped on the bike with me, riding down a hill – one on the handlebars, one on the seat, one on the back. They became my friends. I started going into the campsite. The guys were always there playing the guitar. My friend’s brother would teach me how to play and I would teach him how to read.”

Aimée started sneaking out of the house late at night to join the gypsies around their musical campfire and developed a love for singing. By the time she was 18, she was invited to perform on Star Academy, the French equivalent of American Idol. At that point however, she had already decided to head to New York to study Jazz At Purchase College. She did not, however, grow out of her affinity for the gypsy lifestyle. Between semesters, she would bring Jazz Studies friends back to Europe and they toured around performing on street corners for cash.

“We did a tour through Europe, slept on benches for a whole summer,” she says. “We really didn’t have anything. We’d have to play so we could buy food. We had two guitars. My sister was playing the shakers. There was a sax player playing duets with me.”

In Italy, the crew performed at a club during a jam session. The manager was impressed.

“The guy from the club said, ‘If you play for the lunchtime crowd we’ll feed you. Play for dinner and we’ll feed you.’” Aimée ventured to Montreux, Switzerland on her own as her friends waited in Italy to try her vocal chords in a vocal competition at the Montreuz Jazz Festival. She won.

After this adventurous summer, Aimée and her friends returned to Purchase, where she graduated and relocated to Brooklyn, her new base, from which she travels the world performing with orchestras, ensembles and guitar quartets. One of her favorite stage appearance setups is performing as a duet.

“I do love the duo setting,” she says. “It’s kind of like a dance. There’s just the one other person. I like when you never know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if mind-reading is the correct word … it’s more like a connection. It’s not trying to know what the person is thinking, but what the person is feeling.”

Aimée discovered compatriot and fellow NYC transplant Michael Valeanu at a rehearsal in the city and the two immediately connected.

“The first time I ever heard Michael was at a little club in Paris. He was playing in an organ trio, playing a Michael Jackson tune. I loved it. I thought, ‘I have to play with this guy.’”

Aimée had a vision of creating a collection of songs with three guitars and all original material. Thus her collaboration with Valeanu began, and the two released “It’s a Good Day,” a collection of dazzling arrangements featuring Aimée’s gypsy guitar roots as well as hypnotizing accompaniments of Brazilian island string guitar. When Aimée and Valeanu perform, it’s an eclectic, energetic blend of every flavor the French couple has come to know and love.

“We do a lot of standards, but also songs we wrote together – French songs, Spanish songs, we do a little mix. When it’s just the two of us, there’s a lot of freedom to choose whatever we want. Whatever we feel.”

Don’t miss Cyrille Aimée and Michael Valeanu at 9 p.m. July 15 in the intimate lounge dinner setting of Cucina at the Lodge at Vail for the Vail Jazz Club Series. The duo then takes to the big stage from 6 to 8 p.m. for Vail Jazz @ Vail Square on Thursday, July 16 in the Vail Jazz Tent in Lionshead. For tickets or more information, visit vailjazz.org or call 888-VAIL-JAM.