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  • Jonathan Widran

NATE NAJAR, Under Paris Skies

Continuing on his freewheeling journey as a true musical citizen of the world, Nate Najar followed the release of his acclaimed 2016 album This is Nate Najar with performances everywhere from the Newport Jazz Festival on the Isle of Wight and Ronnie Scott’s in London to a week in Australia, including a stop at Bird’s Basement in Melbourne. Over the years, the Florida based jazz guitarist has enthralled audiences across the globe with his trademark acoustic classical guitar with right hand classical performance technique – but no city he has visited has captured his heart quite like Paris.

While Django Reinhardt’s classic “Nuages” has been part of his trio’s set list for years, Najar explores his passion for French pop and jazz with deeper commitment and purpose than ever before on his new full length album Under Paris Skies, whose title is an English translation of the title track “Sous le Ciel de Paris,” theme to a 1951 French film of the same name. The 11-track collection extends Najar’s creative relationship with Woodward Avenue Records, which released his Christmas in December in 2017. Najar’s affiliation with the popular indie jazz label dates back to “Groove Me,” his 2010 collaboration with Melba Moore that reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Jazz chart.

A warm, soulful, multi-faceted expression of his enduring love for the City of Lights, Under Paris Skies reflects the deep and exciting “rabbit hole” of research Najar did to curate a unique eclectic variety of pop, jazz and classical songs that are played often in France but rarely re-imagined by American jazz artists. One of the inspirations for the project was the wonderful experience he and his trio had performing at Duc des Lombards, a Parisian jazz club; the show was broadcast live over national French radio.

While a deliberate departure from the jam session vibe and stylistically diverse nature of This is Nate Najar, the new album harkens back to his theme-driven earlier projects, Aquarela Do Brasil (2014) and Blues For Night People: The Nate Najar Trio Remembers Charlie Byrd (2012). Under Paris Skies is also a dynamic showcase of the trio’s latest lineup (featuring Washington, DC bassist Tommy Cecil and UK drummer Matt Home) and Najar’s work on his beloved (and trusty!) Ramirez guitar, which was previously Charlie Byrd’s Ramirez. Longtime collaborators of the guitarist, Cecil and Home toured with Najar throughout 2017. “We’re a solid unit, and it felt like the right one to record the new album with,” the guitarist says. Chuck Redd, who has played drums on many previous Najar projects (including Aquarela Do Brasil), adds his lush vibraphone harmonies and solos to two numbers.

“Who doesn’t love Paris, or the idea of Paris?” Najar asks whimsically. “I don’t know anyone who says they don’t want to go there, and if you’ve been, how could you not want to go back? Having played there now a few times, I have a love affair with France, which is a wonderful, romantic place on every level. Artistically, it has always struck me as a place whose culture I wanted to dig deeper into. There is such a rich cultural history, with so much global influence. Paris has traditionally been the center of many movements in classical music, but there’s also an incredible legacy of pop and jazz artists and composers many Americans are not familiar with.

“One great example,” the guitarist adds, “is singer France Gall, who passed away in January. Last October, my wife and I, celebrating our one year anniversary, were there walking along the Seine and one of the vendors was selling LPs. I had already committed to recording an album of French tunes, and I found one of her albums from the early 80s. I wondered what it sounded like. When I heard ‘La Mort Douce’ I knew I could turn her upbeat original version and turn it into something more gentle and intimate.”

That piece, featuring Najar’s thoughtful acoustic improvisations and the subtle harmonic shadings of Cecil’s bass, kicks off a deeply melodic, rhythmically diverse and improvisation-rich exploratory journey. Along the way, Najar pays homage to legendary composer Michel Legrand, via a brisk, lighthearted swing arrangement of “I Will Wait for You,” from the 1964 film Umbrellas of Cherbourg; Django Reinhardt, via a soulful, percussive romp through “Nuages,” featuring the guitartist’s plucky interactions with Chuck Redd’s vibes and Cecil’s bass; and legendary songwriter Serge Gainsbourg with “La Javanaise,” a waltz that Najar re-imagines with a spirited West Indian vibe.

Another key stop Najar makes on Under Paris Skies is the moody, reflective title track “Sous le Ciel de Paris,” from the 1951 film of the same name, penned by composer Hubert Giraud “Every French singer alive or dead has done this song,” he says. The snappy, spirited “Ce Petit Chemin” was originally recorded in the 30’s by a singer named Mireille. Najar and Cecil engage in a hauntingly hypnotic guitar-bass duet of “Apres Un Reve,” which classical composer Gabriel Faure originally wrote for piano and soprano vocal. Redds’ sensual vibes return on the gorgeous Charles Aznavour ballad “Sa Jeunesse” to join forces with Najar’s strings on an easy flowing romantic adventure.

Uptempo, grooving jazz and swing create the buoyant rhythmic foundation of the playful yet intricately rendered Charles Trenet tune “Que reste-til a tous amour?” which became an American standard as “I Wish You Love,” a huge hit for Keely Smith in 1958. Najar wraps the collection with “Chanson du Coeur Brise,” a slightly melancholy, richly improvisational ballad whose raw emotion is underscored by guitarist’s scrapes on the wood; and the breezy, balmy, Brazilian leaning “La Marseillaise,” which Najar says needs “no real explanation. I tried to imagine how Joao Gilberto would approach it and gave it my best shot.”

Najar makes one request of us. "As you listen," he says, I want you to imagine you’re in Paris and feel it all – the majesty of white boulevards, the incredible foliage, the Haussman designed buildings, how the Seine moves along. It’s really a magical place that everyone must experience in their lifetime.”

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