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The French Impressionists \ Biography

The French Impressionists were the brainchild of Glaswegian songwriter and pianist Malcolm Fisher, informed by influences as diverse as George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Oscar Peterson and early Lennon-McCartney. The concept for the band allegedly dawned on Malcolm in a bookshop, while leafing through a volume called Play Jazz and spying a section on Claude Debussy and colourful 'impressionist' chords.

Writing in the NME, Adrian Thrills described Malcolm thus: "With his dry humour and rustic dress sense - tidy thrift shop threads topped off by a pale paisley cravat - this lean Glaswegian pianist and songsmith could be the son of some bygone Bohemian age. Just as August Darnell could have been time-warped into the modern world from the Manhattan of the 1940s, so Malcolm sometimes seems as if he belongs to a forgotten era of puritan elegance. He sees himself - not too seriously - as a man of leisure seeking an education in the arts, a man with time and talent on his hands."

Initially the band were linked to the hip Postcard Records stable, and the close-knit scene centered on the Rock Garden bar in Glasgow in which Orange Juice, Altered Images, Aztec Camera and The Bluebells held court. Malcolm was a neighbour of Postcard supremo Alan Horne, who encouraged the pianist to write a song for a planned compilation album on chic Belgian independent Les Disques du Crépuscule. The session took place a week later (June 1981) with the help of vocalist Paul Quinn and Roddy Frame and Campbell Owens of Aztec Camera on guitar and bass. Edwyn Collins also lent a hand on the writing and arrangements. These two 'shambolic' tracks - My Guardian Angel and Boo Boo's Gone Mambo - were mixed on a portastudio, then released on The Fruit of The Original Sin, the smart magazine-style double compilation released in October which also featured tracks by Orange Juice and Josef K frontman Paul Haig. FOTOS would be the closest thing to a manifesto produced by Crépuscule in pursuit of its ambitious aim of launching a new art movement.

That autumn Malcolm met singer Beatrice Colin at a party in Glasgow, with the pair soon joined by drummer Barry Ross and bassist Paul Yacoubian. This version of the band played four hometown gigs and recorded another four songs for Crépuscule. Barry Ross recalls: "Our objective was to write songs where the melody was king, and where the arrangement struck a balance between the freshness of jazz, but set within the discipline of a two or three minute pop song. We weren't fans of long, free-form solos. Although that objective never changed, as this CD demonstrates, its execution evolved over the life of the band as we played with the arrangements and tried out different approaches. Castles in the Air is typical of our early incarnation, a light, infectious melody set within a sparse, almost thin sound. However as we developed the sound took a more modern, dance orientated flavour (eg Santa Baby) and finally culminated in a fuller, more complex and (sometimes) darker sound, as on the live tracks on the CD. The contrast is best shown by the two versions of Blue Skies."

After the early gigs and demo singer Beatrice was let go. Several replacements were auditioned, including Eddie Reader, but new singer Stella Tobias didn't last long before the band settled on former hairdresser and dancer Louise Ness, who then re-recorded the vocals for the single. A Selection of Songs finally appeared on Crépuscule (TWI 070) on 12" only in September 1982 and featured four numbers selected from their live set: Pick Up the Rhythm, Blue Skies, Since You've Been Away and the instrumental Theme From Walking Home. Sparsely recorded, it nonetheless captures the fragile charm of a band punching well above its weight. The fine oil painting on the cover was executed by Lynn Hendry, a friend of the band.

After the initial dates in Scotland, the French Impressionists (or Frimps by their own shorthand) made their live debut in London at the Grapes wine bar in Islington during the summer of 1982. In August the band played a bigger London showcase at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), part of the 'Joy of Mooching' season which also included sets by Swamp Children (later Kalima), Biting Tongues, Weekend, Allez Allez (formerly Marine) and Animal Nightlife. The Frimps, now joined by second singer Margaret Murphy, played alongside accappella troupe The Flying Pickets and tap/jazz hoofer Will Gaines. Leyla Sanai offered qualified praise in the NME: "With their rolling piano, subtle drum sound and two girl singers taking turns at the front, they must be contenders for this year's Big Thing. Their songs are pleasant, relaxed, slow and dreamy, and the different vocal styles offered by Louise (fresh, sweet) and Margaret (more mature, trilled) are refreshing, but it's too easy for the overall sound to be listless. The delicate touch they have in common with The Jazzateers would be at home at the Wag Club, but at the ICA it sounded a trifle weedy. Whatever happened to the life and colour of impressionists, joie de vivre and all that?"

With 'new jazz' all the rage in London, the Frimps were inevitably lumped in with acts as diverse as Carmel, Vic Godard and Swamp Children. Spandau Ballet saw the band at the ICA, and Gary Kemp was keen to produce the band in the studio. A real buzz was developing, with features in NME, Record Mirror and Melody Maker, and it seemed only a matter of time before the band were signed as The Next Big (Scottish) Thing. Speaking to Adrian Thrills in the NME, Malcolm revealed: "People keep trying to tell us that we're a jazz band, but we don't specifically play jazz. It's just popular music with tinges of jazz and classical. I've always tried to write good songs with good tunes, some of which might use jazz as a source, but no more. I was brought up listening to music like jazz, so it wouldn't be us if we tried to play rock music. We'll probably be compared with a lot of new jazz groups because it's an easy handle, but I don't want to identify too strongly with it. A group like Pigbag put the emphasis on instrumental improvisation and a dance beat, whereas we put the emphasis on the song and melody. We'll probably be compared with some of the groups that play at Club Left too, although we're less of a sophisticated, cabaret thing than they are."

That autumn the band recorded a Christmas single for Crépuscule, a funky take on Santa Baby, on which Louise and Margaret swapped verses, and which picked up repeated airplay from Radio 1 DJ Peter Powell on release in December. John Peel, it appears, was less enthusiastic. The Frimps continued to build up their live set and develop their songwriting, their unreleased songs including You Said You'd Go Far, Maybe Tomorrow and I Wish I Was In Love Again. The band also worked up an arrangement of Summertime (their only other cover), and filled out their sound with the recruitment of guitarist Charles Reilly. Live gigs included a month of Mondays at Nightmoves in Glasgow in September 1982, billed as Frimpy Manor, but no major deal materialized and the band dissolved in the spring of 1983. Malcolm met another London-based singer, Sade Adu, but failed to interest Crépuscule in a recording project, and could only watch when Diamond Life went platinum in 1985.

Where are they now? Despite lasting little more than a year, the French Impressionists seem to have been a veritable fame academy. Paul Quinn was already in The Jazzateers when he sang on the first demo, and later took a shot at pop stardom both in Bourgie Bourgie and as a solo artist. During the 1990s he cut several records for the revitalized Postcard label. Beatrice Colin joined April Showers, then Pale Fire, and is now an established novelist and playwright. Louise Ness contributed guest vocals on several projects by former Magazine and Bad Seeds bassist Barry Adamson. Margaret Murphy (as Katie Murphy) became a successful stage and television actress, including Tutti Frutti, Prime Suspect and Happiness. Barry Ross and Charles Reilly joined an early version of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. Paul Yacoubian teamed up with ex-Orange Juice members Steven Daly and James Kirk as Cormorant. Both Barry and Paul are now successful financial advisors in the City of London. Band manager Charles Cosh subsequently handled The Shamen, Kosheen and others.

After the band split in 1983 Malcolm Fisher remained in the west end of Glasgow, writing songs and amassing a large collection of silk ties. After a period of inactivity, he picked up the rhythm again in Milan, where he embarked on a series of CD projects which has so far seen the release of three albums of solo piano music: Dress and Dream (both 1998) and Seeds (2000).

In 2007 Malcolm assembled a new band of French Impressionsists for the well-received album Fete, and followed this in 2008 with Amelia Rosselli, a setting of the poet's works sung by Sara Cicenia.

James Nice

August 2008

The French Impressionists