French jazz album recorded in French? Why not?

Friday, December 22, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 51

Eric Brace, standing, with Rory Hoffman

-- Submitted Photograph By Stacie Huckeba

Eric Brace laughs at himself easily when describing his latest project, an album of French jazz songs – sung in that storied language of love – accompanied by a wall of sound mostly provided by a blind, musical genius who began his career in a South Dakota family gospel band.

“I haven’t figured out how to promote it yet. It’s neither fish nor fowl. Or perhaps it’s foul fish,” Eric says, chuckling slightly at his self-deprecating wordplay. “My friend Peter Cooper said: ‘Recording an album of French songs in French: It’s obviously a money grab.’”

Peter, a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum executive, spends much of his free time teamed with Eric in a sort of Everly Brothers-style folk harmony group that teeters at the very edge of traditional country music.

Perhaps wise to the marketing potential of a jazz album sung in French, Peter’s not a part of this project.

Actually, the album “Cartes Postales” is, to use an apt cliché, a labor of love for Eric, who recorded these songs as a tribute to his late father, who surrounded him with these classic French jazz tunes. Heck, Paul Brace even played a harmonica along with those recordings as young Eric listened in wonderment.

When I first listened to “Cartes Postales” – translation: “Post Cards” – a week or two ago, I told Eric that I had been captured by its “charm.”

“That’s really perfect,” Eric says of my use of the word “charm” to sum up my “review.”

So how does an Americana godfather in Nashville come up with the idea of recording a full album, 11 tracks, of pop/jazz French songs? (Actually the 11th track is an English-language version of “Nuages,” which appears in its original French form as track two.)

Well, Eric is still kind of mulling the answers to my “whys?” and “hows?” about this charming project.

Maybe something clicked when Byrds founder and legendary country-rock explorer Chris Hillman compared Eric’s voice to that of late Tin Pan Alley composer, songwriter and singer Johnny Mercer.

Hillman and Herb Pedersen, one of America’s best guitar stylists and songwriters, were performing one night on “Music City Roots,” the alt-country radio showcase. Eric and his pal Peter and a loose-knit assemblage of friends, musical creatures great and small, also were on that live radio show’s bill that night.

Eric and Peter – both acolytes of D.C.’s Seldom Scene – have borrowed, for their regular and frequent gigs in living rooms, tea rooms, theater rooms and bar rooms across America (and in the more-or-less safe parts of Europe), the great song “Wait a Minute,” recorded by their legendary progressive bluegrass heroes.

Pedersen wrote that song, which became a harmonic Seldom Scene gut-grabber. So, after making sure Hillman and Pedersen were not performing that song for their set, Brace and Cooper, who have turned it into their harmonic theme song, went ahead and sang it that night.

“One of the greatest compliments I ever got was from Chris Hillman, who came to me after we got upstaged by him and Herb Pedersen,” Eric recalls.

“Chris said ‘I really enjoyed your singing. You sound just like Johnny Mercer. I said ‘Thank you, I love Johnny Mercer’s singing….’”

He tells me that story, laughs again, and adds “Who knows? Maybe there’s a Johnny Mercer album in my future?” Obviously, New York’s Tin Pan Alley – where Mercer helped write the Great American Songbook – is a fair distance from the Americana music world Eric generally inhabits.

I mention that because it wouldn’t be far-fetched to compare Mercer to Yves Montand, the French actor and singer whose album “Les Grandes Chansons, Volume II, with Hubert Rostaing and His Orchestra” was a part of Eric’s soundtrack when he was living in France in the early ’70s, “mostly listening to The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel,” but developing a taste for French pop/jazz.

That passion for French was fueled by his dad, a Parisian who had moved to the states to study at the University of Michigan, prepping for a career in urban planning. He eventually started a family and focused on his career in the U.S.

But around 1970, Paul Brace returned – with his family – to Paris, where for the next four years he used his urban planning expertise to help develop satellites to the City of Lights, towns fashioned to take some of the population pressure off that burgeoning home of the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Jim Morrison’s grave.

“I remember my father always played the harmonica when I was a young boy,” says the 6-foot-3-and-a-half singer who wears his hair invisibly. “He would play along with records and he would sing these songs in French,” not only during that period, but throughout his life, which ended in 2004.

Maybe the French album is another sidetrack in an Americana music career that was sprung from Eric’s youth idolizing the Seldom Scene in his hometown of D.C.

And perhaps it was because of his friendship with Rory Hoffman, the blind musician from both of the Dakotas – his family’s Lemmon, South Dakota, home is at the front of their ranch that’s mostly in North Dakota – emigrated from the North country about 10 years ago to see if he could make a living in Nashville by playing even a few of the near-countless instruments he has mastered.

“I play accordion, clarinet, guitar, piano, banjo, saxophone and harmonica,” Rory explains when asked what is his musical oeuvre. “I also play a bunch of other stuff: Mandolin, percussion, flute, lots of odds and ends like recorders and auto harp.”

His friend, Eric, adds in a separate conversation that Hoffman “even whistles.” To anyone who has seen him perform, swapping one instrument to the next and never dropping the melody, Rory is a miracle man.

Eric’s desire to avoid complacency also helped him conspire to make this French album.

“I don’t want to repeat myself,” Eric reckons, noting that he has done a variety of music.

For example, there’s a Broadway-styled musical based on “Sweet Betsy from Pike.” He’s in the script-drafting process now and has leaned on “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” lyricist Tim Rice for advice.

Eric also produced an album of R&B, with Jerry Lawson, late of The Persuasions, an acclaimed a cappella street-corner-harmony group whose music occupies a big part of Eric’s soul.

Eric wore his folkie Americana, Bobby Bare-meets-the-Seldom Scene packaging when he and his wife Mary Ann moved to Nashville from D.C. 13 years ago or so.

That vibe, worn along with cowboy boots and shirts, remains the driving force of his work with duo partner Peter Cooper, the subsequent trio of Brace, Cooper and Thomm Jutz and with band Last Train Home, which followed him, banjos on their knees, down to Nashville, from D.C.

He distributes his recorded works from “the bunker,” the East Nashville garage where his Red Beet Records label resides and wife Mary Ann presides.

While thinking about “what’s next,” the 57-year-old found himself traveling deeper and deeper into the French jazz songs of his youth.

And, for whatever reason – I’m not sure he can really pin it down – he dug up enough of those songs to record a full album.

“Singing songs in French was always in my head for some reason,” Eric adds. (Fact is, he’s already exploring songs for a sequel.)

“Another thing that’s been happening is that as my career in music progresses, I felt like I was at risk of repeating myself, writing some songs that I’d written before or making a record that I’ve made before.

“I’ve tried very hard over the years to follow up the record I’ve just done with something completely different.

“It’s a way to keep myself from getting bored with what I’m doing. And it makes it hard for people to figure out what I do.”

This musical tribute to his dad is a cowboy-booted step removed from Eric’s musical “home,” Americana, an energetic Woody Guthrie-meets-Hank Williams musical style that adds steel-guitar licks and fiddles and generally poses as “real” country music.

He has made a name for himself in those musical circles, and he also says he and his wife have been catalysts in the development of the East Nashville Americana scene, thanks to their Red Beet Records’ chance-taking and Eric’s sensibilities.

Yes, I’m sure Hank done it that way, but Eric’s new stuff would be completely foreign to Luke the Drifter, dead or alive.

Eric points to another reason for his French passion.

“The real reason I wanted to do this was I had heard Rory Hoffman many years ago when Peter Cooper said: ‘Holy cow, you’ve got to see this guy.’”

Eric first caught Rory at a nightclub, where he was playing clarinet, accordion and guitar in a swing combo.

“When Peter and I were going into the studio to record our third duo record (‘The Comeback Album’), we were kind of conceptualizing what it would be, and Peter said, ‘Why don’t we get Rory Hoffman to play on a few songs?’”

The 39-year-old blind musician – who started his musical career at age 4 as a part of his family’s country-gospel outfit – cannot be pigeonholed in any musical style, and he willingly hopped aboard the Brace & Cooper Americana express.

“We had him play three songs on that album. He used accordion, clarinet, banjo (and) harmonica. He said ‘I’d like to play some gypsy guitar on that’ and he did.’’

That Rory – who Eric unflinchingly hyperbolizes as “the greatest living musician” – was available is kind of a shame, really. For some reason, this musical superhero is “not on the (Music Row session musicians’) short list, he’s in Nashville and he’s not being called every day to lay down tracks,” Eric laments.

That baffles but pleases Eric, who was able to abscond with the musician and convince him – no difficult task – to play basically all the musical parts on the French-language album he was formulating.

“I started collecting songs,” Eric says. “I’d hear a French song in a movie soundtrack or on YouTube or something and I’d put the name of it on file.

“I would say ‘That’s one I can sink my teeth into. Someday I’m going to do this (French record with Rory). I think what triggered it to happen now is that Rory was starting to get hired by more famous people, like Ricky Skaggs and other people, and I was worried ‘somebody is going to come in and sweep him up for a few years,’” making him unavailable for this special project.

In late 2016, Eric decided the time had come, so he called Thomm Jutz (damn nice guy, guitar genius, producer, recording engineer and now full-fledged Brace, Cooper & Jutz band-member) to talk about recording sessions out at his Mount Juliet dream factory. “And we got sort of his ‘Wrecking Crew,’ Lynn Williams on drums and Mark Fain on bass and with Rory, we went into the studio.”

They basically laid down the tracks in one take, with Rory on rhythm guitar.

Rory, who had come to Nashville from the Dakota territory, hadn’t captured the town as he expected when he left Roland Hoffman and the Believers (his pop’s band) behind.

“I had a game plan. I would come to Nashville and record. There had to be a lot more opportunities than in Lemmon. But none of it came to fruition.”

Oh, he’s making a good living, including traveling with Skaggs when he goes out to do his country – rather than bluegrass – tours.

But as for session work “I’m not playing on any of the famous records you are hearing on the radio. Not Jason Aldean’s. Not Miranda Lambert’s. I’m a tier down,” Rory explains. “But that’s fine with me. I don’t like much of that music anyway.

“I did play on Kacey Musgraves’ Christmas record (and tour) last year. We went out on the road from Thanksgiving through December.

“I broke my elbow while out on the tour, but we were going to be on Fallon, Seth Myers and Good Morning America and I wanted to be there.

“I was in New York City, it was rainy and I was trying to get somewhere in a hurry and I hit a curb or a bump in the sidewalk and down I went.”

He at first worried “that was the end of that.”

But his determination ruled. Besides that, it’d have been pretty difficult for the extremely talented and lovely Kacey to find the handful of musicians it would take to replace Rory’s parts – keyboards, accordion, guitar, clarinet and saxophone – on those late-night and early-morning TV staples.

“Wasn’t anybody else who could do that job,” he says, simply.

He not only played on those three TV shows, he ended up playing “about half the tour with a broken elbow. Other than that, it was really fun.

“It’s pretty hard to keep me down. I’ll keep playing even with a broken elbow.”

Back in Nashville, Rory continued to make a living overdubbing in his West Nashville home studio. “It can be anything from country to rock to Irish (‘I make Irish penny-whistle music’) to jazz to swing. It really runs the gamut.”

Plus, he plays guitar with local club heroes, The Gypsy Hombres, and has other commitments around town.

But there was something different and enticing about the project Eric was planning. “It struck me as being one of the most fun things I was going to get to do this year. I love that (French) music,” Rory adds.

“When Eric mentioned he wanted to make an album of it, I was all for it.”

Most of the musical layering by a jazz band of instruments is done by Rory.

With Rory on rhythm guitar, “we would work out the rhythm section first; work out the general skeleton and arrangement. Cut four or five songs in a day.”

“And I would come in the next day and start overlapping parts, Rory says. “I had my ideas about what instruments would fit in and where. Eric had ideas. Thomm had his ideas.”

“I’m always thinking ahead and not backward,” Rory acknowledges.

“I would be listening to what I already did and anticipating what I have yet to do. … If I did a real cool thing on accordion, I would say to Thomm to go back to that spot. ‘I want to harmonize that line with clarinet, piano… I was listening to what I’d done and anticipating what I’d do next.”

This album and its opportunities for him are exciting, he says.

“It was a chance for me to shine while remembering to always be true to the lyric, never forget that Eric’s got a neat lyric to sing.

“It’s essentially what improvisation is: Spontaneous composition. Reacting, learning the song, learning the melody, learning the phrasing, the chord progressions, generating ideas that are going to be cool.

“I’m really, really pleased with how it came out,” Rory says. “I’m very happy Eric let me be involved.”

Eric could not have been happier when he listened to Rory fabricate all the instrumentals: “He hears it all so clearly and he understands how frequencies work. His sonic sophistication is unparalleled.”

Enthusiasts so far include British BBC2 radio legend Whispering Bob Harris, who tweeted. “If you only buy one more album in your life, make it this one.”

“It is a ridiculous, spectacular, amazing thing,” Eric says of Harris’ endorsement. “I like it too. I’ve always had a hard time listening to my own records …. But I listen to this one. A Lot.”

This album, he admits, warms his heart.

“I think it’s a way to stay close to my father. Whenever I hear it I can hear him singing. I feel like I may be channeling him a little bit. In that sense it’s more personal than the other records.”

Besides that, he agrees with me. “Yes, it is charming.”