Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am


Having enjoyed a sizeable hit with her last album - My One and Only Thrill, which made No 2 on the US jazz albums chart and No 42 on the Billboard 200 - Melody Gardot might have been expected to stick with a winning formula, for one more CD at least.

She didn't - and the result of that decision, The Absence, looks like being a bigger hit yet. Its highest position to date on the Billboard 200 is 33, and on the jazz albums chart it went to No1.

The architects of her previous success, the Grammy-winning team of producer Larry Klein and arranger/orchestrator Vince Mendoza, were replaced for this album by Heitor Pereira.

Pereira too has Grammy form: he won the award for best instrumental arrangement accompanying a vocalist in 2006 for a version of What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life recorded by Sting and Chris Botti; his distinctive guitar work has also featured on records by pop stars such as Rod Stewart and Elton John.

Pereira is Brazilian, and for The Absence Gardot, whose interest in Brazilian music is evident on her last album, has incorporated more South American influences, along with elements of French chanson and Portuguese fado.

Still just 27, Gardot - who has described herself as 'an old soul' - certainly sounds older, but then she has a lot of tough life experience informing her art.

Born in New Jersey, the daughter of a single mother who had to struggle hard to make ends meet, at the age of 19 Gardot was studying fashion at the Community College of Philadelphia when she was knocked off a bicycle by a jeep and severely injured. Before the accident she had been playing piano and singing part time in Philadelphia bars, performing standards. Her doctors encouraged her to use music as therapy to recover from a broken pelvis and extensive neural damage.

Gardot began to compose her own music, heavily influenced by the standards songbook, but writing highly personal lyrics. She has been compared to Norah Jones and Diana Krall, neither of whom she resembles much, and Madeleine Peyroux, who she does a little.

There is also an echo of Billie Holiday in her vocal delivery, and it probably isn't accidental that one of the new ballads she has recorded here - So We Meet Again My Heartache - echoes the title of Holiday's Good Morning Heartache. Another line in the song also seems to be a deliberate allusion to the standard Autumn Leaves, to which the tune bears some resemblance.

Is this music jazz? Well, despite the fact that it has topped the jazz chart and has been heavily played on 'smooth jazz' radio stations, not really. There isn't much improvisation here, with the possible exception of some of Pereira's ornamental guitar work. The producer is a strong presence throughout, and has created a moody late-night atmosphere for the album that imposes a coherence on some relatively diverse songs, performed in a mixture of English, Portuguese and French.

From the jaunty Rio de Janeiro beach groove of the opener, Mira, to the stately fado of Lisboa - announced by a church bell, one of a number of recorded street sounds that turn up in odd places throughout - the album also takes in Argentinian tango with Impossible Love and French chanson with My Heart Won't Have it Any Other Way.

Pereira's instinct for the right instrument to give a song a sound and a sense of place of its own is unerring - here a pair of castanets, there a bandoneon, elsewhere a harmonica. A large cast of musicians were employed for the sessions, but they were deployed with intelligence and economy. Even Pereira's guitar never got in the way of Gardot's voice or piano.

Live, nothwithstanding her physical problems - she is far from fully recovered from her accident - she seem to have a cabaret-influenced theatrical flair. That, a willingness to take musical chances, and a sure instinct for the arrangements and instrumentation that suit her voice and songs will continue to serve her well.

Whether she moves back to jazz or further into her world music flavoured-take on cabaret, Gardot should have a long career ahead. Take Three

Three earlier recordings by Gardot.

Worrisome Heart (Verve, 2006): this debut album contains some of the autobiographical songs about her accident that had been privately released on The Bedroom Sessions, a short CD also available as a digital download, but already she is moving lyrically towards songs likely to engage a broader audience. They certainly engaged record company executives and won her a contract with Verve.

Live From Soho (Verve, 2009): a live recording featuring Gardot in front of an audience at an 'in store' appearance in New York. A slightly more raw performance than the highly polished studio set that was to follow.

My One and Only Thrill (Verve, 2009): Gardot's breakthrough album, and the only one to date to feature a cover tune - Somewhere Over the Rainbow, acknowledging a debt to Judy Garland. Her other recordings of standards have been released as EPs or bonus discs with 'deluxe' CD issues. Super slick production garnered three Grammy nominations and sales of more than half a million copies. Review of The Absence - Page 16