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Obituary: Mimi Perrin, singer and pianist in Les Double Six, dies at 84

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By Adam Bernstein
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 8:24 PM

Mimi Perrin, 84, a singer and pianist who formed Les Double Six, a vocal group that specialized in powerful and inventive French-language re-creations of jazz instrumental arrangements, died Nov. 16 in Paris.

The newspaper Ouest-France reported the death but did not provide a cause of death.

Les Double Six performed in the vocalese style popularized in the United States by King Pleasure and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross in the 1950s and later Manhattan Transfer.

Those groups sang or scatted note-for-note to a highly intricate jazz repertoire first popularized by such artists as Count Basie, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan and Woody Herman.

The French-born Perrin, whose voice a Time magazine critic described as "extraordinarily agile," spent her early career playing bebop jazz piano and working as a backup singer for Blossom Dearie and other cabaret acts in Paris.

She formed Les Double Six in 1959. Although a sextet, the group took its name from the fact that studio overdubbing gave the impression of having twice that many singers.

For lyrics, Ms. Perrin often wrote piquant story lines involving gangsters and lovers to accompany the melody of a given song. Quincy Jones, one of Ms. Perrin's chief arrangers, once praised her "fearless imagination and biting wit."

Ms. Perrin said that it was hard to create lyrics from the rapid-fire and precise solos initially played by such virtuosos as Parker. The French language, she told National Public Radio in 1999, "doesn't swing." She had to emphasize syllables and words that normally are not stressed in everyday French.

Her native tongue, she added, is a "glorious language . . . but I had to, you know, twist it a little so that the words would bounce like in English."

The classical music publication Gramophone weighed in on the French group in 1963. While sniffing a bit at the whole vocalese concept, the magazine compared the sextet to vocal athletes who "can still be wondered at . . . just as a trapeze artist excites our awe." Les Double Six, continued the review, displays "quite enthralling examples of this particular kind of expertise."

As the lead vocalist, Ms. Perrin combined a remarkably pure sound and an exquisite sense of swing. Her range was featured on Coltrane's haunting ballad "Naima," Lester Young's rollicking "Tickle Toe" and Mulligan's up-tempo "Westwood Walk."

Onstage, Ms. Perrin said that she and her colleagues "thought like musicians" - trying to channel the sound of a trombone or saxophone depending on the part that they were copying from the original recording.

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