Juliette Gréco is a force of nature. In her eighties, she is still performing and recording. Gréco Chante Brel brings her full circle. This icon of French chanson began recording the Belgian composer, songwriter, and singer Jacques Brel's songs in the late '50s; she was among the very first. Arguably it was she who paved the way for Brel's work to achieve its place in the Gallic canon. His collaborator was pianist and arranger Gérard Jouannest, who, since 1989, has been Gréco's husband. This album, recorded in three days, features the singer accompanied by her husband and orchestra. He reset all 12 tunes to new music, with arrangements on all but two of these songs (that he did himself) by conductor Bruno Fontaine. Gréco's voice here is a tad weathered, and she dramatically speaks almost as much as she sings. But that adds rather than detracts from her interpretations. Her utterly original style is evident throughout. While the music retains Brel's essence, Fontaine and Jouannest blur the lines between classical, café, French folk, modern avant-garde composition, and at times jazz. The taut, spacious "Ces Gens-Là" (a Brel set piece) is daring with its repetitive three-chord pattern, elliptical piano, and swirling winds. They underscore Gréco's dramatic vocal that walks a tightrope between salaciousness and anger. When the brass and percussion enter, they threaten to become almost anthemic, but excess is held at bay. Gréco is not only arresting; she is commanding. Other highlights include her thoroughly re-imagined reading of the bawdy "Amsterdam," the smoky, brooding "Je Suis un Soir d'Été," the tender "J'Arrive," the decorous "Le Prochain Amour" with its tempered brass harmonies, and the gorgeous "Fils De...," with its otherworldly harmonica and timeless accordion. Via Fontaine's brave charts, Gréco confronts the image the world has constructed of Brel. Her takes of these songs express what the man and his songs mean to her intimately, imparted without filter via the grain of her voice. Fontaine understands this implicitly, yet he encourages -- even dares -- her to reveal more, creating a tension at once intimate and heartbreakingly beautiful. Only Jouannest's piano stands in the gap. Gréco Chante Brel is an astonishing recording, musically, creatively, and emotionally.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek