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It all began in Los Angeles. Ben L’Oncle Soul had gone there to take a step back – and move on. He was at the wheel of a beige Monte Carlo, a clean, veteran “1972 V8 model” Chevrolet. It was a wonderfully responsive automobile, perfect for eating up the miles and touring the ‘good life’ city where everything is beautiful: the girls, the palm trees, the restaurants… “In the car, there was a 10-CD stacker with a Sinatra compilation. It turned out to be the ideal soundtrack for that sun and palm-tree setting. Movie music! Sinatra truly is the voice of America, the dream incarnate.”
Because of that chance discovery, Ben fell in love with Sinatra. The soul aficionado began to explore ‘The Voice’, buying old Sinatra LPs – “Capitol classics with legendary sleeves” – especially those arranged by Basie, the master of pneumatic swing, a wonderful machinery that rocks and rolls. He also read up on the life of the complex, multifaceted character, whose centenary had just been celebrated. “I had to plunge into the lyrics, the words, and his singing. Very few voices sound like his: it has a texture that sends shivers down your spine. Live, he was even better than in the studio! Total control… I grew up with Otis Redding and I can hear the years of work and the ups and the downs in Sinatra’s voice. All of that moves me. They’re not throwaway pop songs but an extremely polished repertoire, with melodies that remind me of soul music.”
It was not the first time that Ben had explored another voice to develop his own. He is of course famous for Soulman, but to get to know the remarkable singer better, we have to go beyond that hit, just as we have to look further than his version of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Donny Hattaway and Marvin Gaye had all been fixtures in his family home, along with the great jazz divas – Ella and Dinah, Sarah and Nina, a subject of particular tribute – who had also formed a familiar soundtrack, but there had not been a single Sinatra album in his mother’s record collection! Now the time had come for the boy raised in the great school of gospel and revealed by the nu-soul movement to climb this Everest in his own, unique way.
“You can’t compare yourself to such an icon. It’s not possible to do a tribute in jam mode, just to be cool. I wanted to tell my own story through his music and bring it to life! The album celebrates a great singer, but it’s above all my new record. I had something else to express.’
We thought we knew all there was to know about these songs, but Ben has made them his and added new, autobiographically contoured perspectives. His thoughtful singing and dark arrangements convey a bitter-sweet message of peace and melancholy – classy and classical like the man who turned the songs into masterpieces. Under My Skin – the hit that relaunched the career of the Italian-American stallion – is cloaked in deep, minimal, twilit gospel. The Frenchman brings out all the meaning of the lyrics, which were sometimes overshadowed by arrangements that were certainly stunning, but a little too flashy when Sinatra recorded them. Fly Me to the Moon lifts off to a trip-hop beat, while My Way and All the Way rely on very hip-hop production, with the backing kept low. Ben also presents a dubbed version of the unstoppable New York New York and a take on I Love Paris, a reaction to the terrible events in his neighborhood on that tragic November 13. The cover has a strong flavor of Horace Andy, guardian singer of English-style reggae. In fact, Ben took one of Andy’s records into the studio when he made the album. “For me, reggae reflects the peaceful values behind the tribute to Paris.”
The Good Life adopts the same approach, but this time enhanced with R&B. As for Witchcraft, Ben gives us a voodoo version with Caribbean leanings. “A Papa Legba side and witch doctors, where Sinatra’s version was more Bewitched and enchanting girls.”
The entire record is passed through a deliciously spiced and seasoned Caribbean filter and is sometimes more rhythmical than a Reggae song. “I needed to add an ethnic mix and bring a sway to the original melodies.” So Ben has created a vibe that reflects his West Indian roots – a prolific avenue of exploration. Time and a different tempo provide a fresh approach to the original versions – a retro-futuristic approach in fact, where the Soulman broadens the spectrum and winds the clock of his influences while positioning the album in the present. Going to Blue Note after Motown seemed completely natural to him. He is now as proud to have joined the mother label of jazz as he previously was to work with the cradle-of-soul label. “The American label with the finest, trio-based history. And three is actually my key number!” So it comes as no surprise that after three years of planning, the record was made by a production trio over a period of three months. Working with Ben were the very stylish music and image duo Matthieu Joly and Benjamin ‘Waxx’ Hekimian, who crafted a showcase worthy of Ben’s very special style of singing. Hip-hop techniques are combined with pop melodies, soul in reggae mode and the feline swing of jazz, between the lines. The postmodern but old-school production lends its flavor to the album as a whole: vintage chic, like the beautiful American automobile where it all began…