Marion Rampal is a French vocalist and songwriter; her first album, Own Virago, was released in 2009. Two years later, she collaborated with pianist Perrine Mansuy on the album Vertigo Songs, for which she wrote all the lyrics and sang. Since 2012, she has been working with saxophonist Archie Shepp as part of his Attica Blues Big Band. She can be heard on his 2013 album I Hear the Sound, a live reworking of Attica Blues with numerous guests, including pianist Amina Claudine Myers, drummer Famoudou Don Moye, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. She’s also made two albums with saxophonist Raphaël Imbert, 2013’s Heavens and 2016’s Music Is My Home. Her second album under her own name, Main Blue, was also released in 2016.
Her latest release, Bye Bye Berlin, is a collaboration with the Quatour Manfred: violinists Marie Béreau and Luigi Vecchioni, violist Emmanuel Haratyk, and cellist Christian Wolff. Imbert plays saxophone and bass clarinet on several tracks. It’s a salute to the music and culture of Weimar Berlin, and features interpretations of songs by Alban Berg, Hanns Eisler, Paul Hindemith, Friedrich Hollaender, Jan Meyerowitz, Erwin Schulhoff, Mischa Spoliansky, and of course Kurt Weill.
The pieces on Bye Bye Berlin are quite stark and theatrical, and Rampal delivers the lyrics, whether in English, French or German, in a mannered style that still manages to retain an essential lightness, even when the lyrics are shockingly aggressive—not just for their time, but for now. Spoliansky’s “The Lavender Song,” which is considered one of the earliest gay anthems, has a militancy that could inspire fist-in-the-air marching even today, and when it’s inserted in between two sections of Hindemith’s jagged, nearly atonal Ouvertüre zum “Fliegenden Holländer”, shortly before the album’s midpoint, it’s like a jolt of energy going straight into the listener’s brain. That’s followed by “Help Me Lord,” a Meyerowitz composition with lyrics by Langston Hughes, on which Imbert’s saxophone quacks and sputters its way through a bluesy melody as the string quartet surges and ebbs. Though Rampal doesn’t go for the same type of pyrotechnics, the piece has an intensity that brings to mind Diamanda Galás‘s versions of gospel songs.
Several songs are explicitly political—”The Lavender Song,” Eisler’s “Solidaritätslied” and “Nein,” both with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht—but even the pieces that don’t seem to be are carrying strong messages. In its final stretch, the album offers three songs, originally sung by Marlene Dietrich, from the 1948 Billy Wilder movie A Foreign Affair, which is nominally a romantic comedy but is in fact extremely dark and cynical look at the post-World War II occupied city. Rampal takes them slowly, almost reciting the lyrics to make sure the listener hears every word, though there’s an eruptive moment in between the English and German verses of “The Ruins of Berlin” that’s even more Galás-like than “Help Me Lord.” This is a dark record, in keeping with the time periods it explores, but it’s never an exercise in nostalgia, kitsch, or borrowed gravitas.