Philip Melancon’s show pays homage to French maestro Charles Aznavour

Photo provided by PHILIP MELANCON -- Philip Melancon
Photo provided by PHILIP MELANCON -- Philip Melancon

After staging dozens of shows dedicated to the songs of composers of the great American songbook — Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael and many more — singer-pianist Philip Melancon recently turned his attention to French maestro Charles Aznavour.

Melancon, playing piano, accordion and guitar, joins singers Heidi Campbell and Hector Ventura, drummer Dave Thomas and bassist Dave Maleckar on Bastille Day, Sunday, July 14, at the Columns Hotel in New Orleans for two performances of Encore, Aznavour.

Aznavour, 89, has cultural icon status in France. An actor as well as a singer, songwriter and recording artist, he’s appeared in more than 60 films. Aznavour’s colorful life includes multiple marriages and working as a chauffeur for Édith Piaf. He became the tragic French star’s protégé and she performed some of his early songs.

Aznavour’s music has been recorded and performed through the decades by Maurice Chevalier, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, Shirley Bassey, Liza Minnelli, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and many others.

American country singer Roy Clark’s recording of “Yesterday When I Was Young,” a U.S. hit in 1969, may be the best known English-language version of an Aznavour song. The song is included in Encore, Aznavour. The revue also features the Piaf-recorded “A Blue Like the Blue of Your Eyes (Bleu Que le Bleu de Tes Yeux).”

Melancon had been aware of Aznavour for years before he thought to dig deeper into the composer’s vast catalog.

“I started listening to him a little more and I was swept away, maybe because I’m a little older now,” he said. “His lyrics are so insightful and poignant. I’ve done 60 shows of different composers and performers but certainly this man deserved some kind of retrospective or homage to his talent a lot sooner than I gave him one.”

Melancon picked 19 songs for Encore, Aznavour. Initially thinking it would be difficult to find enough upbeat songs for a balanced show, the pianist ultimately discovered a variety of material in the Aznavour songbook.

“He wrote so many songs,” Melancon said. “I found a number of them that are up. So the show doesn’t drag. It moves along fine.”

“Yesterday When I Was Young” is probably Melancon’s favorite Aznavour song but he’s also especially fond of “What Makes a Man,” a dark piece about a drag queen.

“It’s not La Cage aux Folles, making fun,” he said. “You feel the person’s pain. Aznavour songs, depending on where your world is, you can take them differently, but they all touch you.”

A musician who knows more songs than he can count, Melancon noted that Aznavour makes lyrics his priority.

“Popular songwriting in the U.S. is based on the blues, driven through that bass line and chord structure,” he said. “Aznavour songs have a different kind of glue. It’s like the blues are a building held together by scaffolding but an Aznavour song is held together with lace. It’s a much lighter composition.”

In addition to his ongoing series of composer-dedicated revues, Melancon performs Friday and Saturday nights at Andrea’s Capri Blue Piano Bar in Metairie and for Sunday brunch at Le Pavillon in downtown New Orleans.

Melancon and Chris Champagne also have more performances of their political, satirical show, Ray Nagin: The Going Away Party, scheduled for Tuesday, July 16, at Café Istanbul, and July 28 and Aug. 4 at the Columns Hotel.

“We throw in every other politician we can get our hands on, too,” former elementary school teacher Melancon said. “I’m fortunate that I get to do thoughtful, romantic things like Charles Aznavour but at the same time do my funny shows, too.”