IF: Irène & Francis Jacob

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Despite Distance:  Actress Irène Jacob and Guitarist Francis Jacob Craft Welcoming, Worldly Pop on Je Sais Nager and live at Joe’s Pub, May 2012

The acclaimed actress (1991 Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actress) and the nomad jazz composer sat down by the sea, and began to write songs.

They had known each other for decades; as siblings and life-long friends, Irène and Francis Jacob had shared games, Paris apartments, and an intense engagement with jazz, film, and philosophy. But one day, in the music room where their grandmother used to practice, they began making music together.

Together, they capture gentle, bittersweet sounds, tales, and joys on Je Sais Nager (I Know How to Swim; Sunnyside Records; U.S. release: May 8, 2012), in songs that blend the musical intuitions of globally minded guitarist and composer Francis and the soft-spoken storytelling skills of international art-house star Irène (The Double Life of Veronique, Red).

The duo and their multinational band (including Senegalese bassist Mamadou Ba and Afro-Peruvian legend Pichio) will perform at Joe’s Pub in New York City on May 3, 2012.

With Brazilian and Senegalese beats, steel and water drums, and a certain French flair for pensive and playful pop, the Jacobs chronicle their own connection despite distance. Journeying into thoughtful inner worlds (“Au Fond de Toi”) or fantastic landscapes (“Sumatra”), Je Sais Nager reveals the fruitful cross-pollination of a trained actor’s ear for language and a skilled musician’s feel for expression and emotion.

“Irène is a wonderful singer, but primarily an actress. Her approach was based on the lyrics, on what the song was saying,” explains Francis. “Working with her opened a new door for me as an arranger; I had to get the music to paint the words.”

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The Jacobs had always been close and had always been musical.

Irène had devoted herself to stage and screen, winning praise and awards for her work with director Krzysztof Kieslowski, including The Double Life of Veronique, in which she played a singer. The part suited her: Irène had been writing songs for years, and began taking jazz singing lessons. A composer, arranger, and guitarist, Francis had graduated from Berklee and spent years in Brazil, before settling down in New York.

That changed one bright afternoon at their family’s vacation home in western France. “We were by the sea in Brittany, in this beautiful port, where the afternoon light was really striking,” recalls Francis. “We were in this old wooden house that our family has owned for a long, long time, full of memories for generation after generation.”

“There’s a music room with a piano in the house, where our grandma played the violin and developed a real talent. She didn’t have a career, but had nine children. We would meet there,” adds Irène.

They got in tune by turning to a shared, if unexpected, source of inspiration: French philosopher and popular speaker Gilles Deleuze, whose uncanny ability to distill complex topics (Spinoza’s thought, for example) into beautifully phrased lectures had long fascinated Irène and Francis. Drawing on Deleuze’s thoughts and intonation, their first song together, “Les Corps Les Plus Simples,” emerged.

“I remember saying to Francis, it has to be dancing music, really light,” Irène notes. Francis agrees: “If you start illustrating a philosopher, the trap and the temptation is make the music very heavy and deep. But we wanted to highlight the playfulness of Deleuze’s words, even when the subject goes back to Spinoza.”

This dancing, sometimes purposefully naïve depth runs throughout the Jacobs’ songs. They tell simple stories and make quiet statements that hide profound moments of distance and connection: the guy you know from somewhere but can’t place (“Ne Serait y Pas”), the meditations of an immigrant commuter (“Au Fond de Toi”), the warm presence of a friend, that passing flash of infinity and meaning.

Francis calls on his extensive experience as a jazz and world music composer and performer, adding serendipitous rhythms from West and North Africa and the sweet sway of samba to Irène’s breathy, eloquent voice. He also brought an elegant, intriguing palette of sounds (water drums, mouth percussion) and brought together a group of global musicians: Grammy-winning jazz harmonica whiz Grégoire Maret (Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Pete Seeger); Moroccan jazz songstress Malika Zarra; steel drum maverick Melvin Dean; ace Afro-Peruvian percussionist Pichio; and Brazilian percussionist Gilmar Gomes (Enrique Iglesias, Meshell Ndegeocello).

The album’s sonic span reflects the duo’s trans-Atlantic collaboration, work that evolved over Skype and in greenrooms from Brooklyn to Berlin. The songs reveal the many facets of distance: the colorful, dreamlike voyage of “Sumatra” or the journey of young lovers crossing cultural lines in New York (“Jihad et Cruzada”).

“Distance is part of this meeting, this secret space we created between us, which often happens in spite of distance. That’s one of our challenges,” Irène muses. “In the stories we’re approaching, and all the musical landscapes Francis creates, there is this distance, this need to travel, to meet the other, to encounter this adventure.”

“For me, our work is a great chance to connect with someone who is both my brother and a great musician.”

Francis Jacob: World Jazz Guitarist, Composer, Producer. Studio Margarita, NYC