Primary Instrument: Vocal
On “Live the Life,” her new release for Mack Avenue, French chanteuse Ilona Knopfler makes a strong musical statement that further defines her place in the jazz world. The CD features twelve timeless songs from the pens of such legendary and diverse songwriters as Ivan Lins, Charles Aznavour, Thelonius Monk, Claude Nougaro, Abbey Lincoln, and Thomas A. Dorsey � whose “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song” kicks off the session and inspired the CD’s title. “Live the Life” highlights the purity of Ilona’s voice, emphasizes her eclectic stylistic abilities and pairs her with a world panoply of supporting players. The result is a lush, atmospheric collection that, in Ilona’s own words, “is a tribute to my unconditional love of music.”
Born in France and raised in a musical family (her mother was a singer, her father a pianist and her mother’s accompanist), Ilona had traveled the world by the time she was in pre-school. That early exposure to the world’s cultures finds its expression on “Live the Life,” on which Ilona sings in both English and French (she’s equally fluent in both) and which was recorded in both Paris and New York. Adding to the CD’s global spirit is the cast of international musicians, recruited by producers Jay Ashby and Al Pryor to add the right flavor to each different track. Among the more than 30 musical artists who contributed their talents to “Live the Life” are Alain Mallet on piano, James Genus and Rufus Reed on bass, Marty Ashby on guitar, Paquito D’Rivera on clarinet, and Mack Avenue label-mate Sean Jones on trumpet, as well as a string section and an oud player (on different tracks, of course).
Ilona says that the songs on “Life the Life” were chosen to “paint a picture of myself that will let people know who I am. Each song represents a character trait, or a specific time in my life, or someone in particular.” Thomas A. Dorsey’s “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song,” the CD’s first track, opens with Ilona’s vocal solo, unaccompanied and radiant, and then bursts into full bloom with a lush arrangement that features Alain Mallet on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, Marty Ashby on guitar, Jamey Haddad on drums, and Antonio Hart � who offers up a burning solo midway through the tune � on alto sax. As the song traverses an array or musical textures, Ilona alternates between singing in French and English, with background vocal support from Kim Nazarian of New York Voices.
“One of the reasons this song spoke to me,” explains Ilona, “is its message of strength, independence, and above all, faith. It expresses such a respect of one’s ability to find your path, the right path, and to follow it regardless of discouraging influences. When I’m singing, I’m living the life I choose, and when I sing of love, of understanding, of respect � that’s the life I want to live everyday.”
Ilona’s ability to tap the emotional nuances of a song is brought to light by the CD’s well-conceived arrangements, courtesy of Jay Ashby, Dr. John Wilson, and pianist Alain Mallet. From the big band swing of “Comment Allez-Vous” to the Latin-tinged, upbeat “But for Now,” to the sumptuous orchestral handling of Thelonius Monk’s “Ask Me Now ” to the bewitching, middle-eastern flavored “Throw it Away,” Ilona offers an aural, expressive and personal interpretation of each track that is illustrative of her substantial range.
“Jay pushed me to make sure that I opened up and expressed everything I have inside,” says Ilona. “And when I thought it was all done, Jay still managed to add more depth to it.”
Ilona visits both the dark smoky atmosphere of a jazz bistro and the insouciant ambiance of a stroll on the Left Bank with two more tunes sung in French, “Dansez Sur Moi” and “Le Jazz et La Java.” “Just like sometimes I dream in English and sometimes in French, whatever language I sing in doesn’t change the story,” Ilona explains. “The important thing is that the lyrics speak to me, so that when I sing them, I mean it and feel it. It’s the harmonious blend of music and lyrics that makes a song understandable in any language.”
“Live the Life” continues with a retro-tinged ballad, “This is Always,” followed by a rhythmic but slightly poignant take on Charles Aznavour’s “Parce Que,” which Ilona says affects her on many levels. “Even though it’s a love song written for a woman, the words aren’t overly sensual. As a mom, as I sang every word, I could only think of my daughter, Aiyana, and the unconditional love that children bring.” It’s only fitting, then, that Aiyana is featured on the track as well.
“Alone Together” positions Ilona’s vibrant, clear vocals in a subtle quartet setting of piano, bass, guitar and drums, a straightforward environment that is pared down to just a trio on the lovely “Les Moulins de Mon Coeur.” While the tune is certainly recognizable to American audiences as Michel Legrand’s “The Windmills of Your Mind,” the French lyrics that Ilona sings were written by Eddy Marnay. The CD concludes with “No Tomorrow,” a simple arrangement of the Ivan Lins tune that fully showcases Ilona’s vocal capability.
Although she was born in Paris, Ilona’s parents’ gigs took them and their young daughter all over the world, eventually bringing them to Hong Kong, where a six-year-old Ilona took the stage for the first time. By the time she was 15, she was singing professionally as a back-up singer for a rock band in Hong Kong. At that same time, she discovered the music of Diane Schuur and Al Jarreau. “I loved their freedom of expression and the fact that they were not afraid to use their voices however they wanted, ” Knopfler says. “I knew then I wanted to express myself that same way.” Her affinity for jazz led her to perform with small groups and big bands at the famous Jazz Club in Hong Kong, quickly becoming a house favorite. When she turned 18, Knopfler set off for New York City, where she lived for five years, studying at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute.
She signed with Mack Avenue in 2003, releasing her debut, “Some Kind of Wonderful” that same year. The CD, on which Ilona interpreted pop tunes of the 60’s and 70’s with a jazz flavor, was lauded as “a courageous journey through the heart of pop music,” and “a promising debut,” and critics noted that Ilona had “the instincts of a fine jazz vocalist” and was “someone to watch in the years to come.”
Today, Ilona splits her time between Paris, France and Atlanta, Georgia