It’s not as if Madeleine Peyroux is a stranger to covering the standards (and the more unusual). The Blue Room however started life as a concerted effort to focus upon a specific artist and album. When producer Larry Klein sought to reinterpret Ray Charles‘ Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, he decided that the soulful jazz tones of Peyroux fit the bill perfectly.
She certainly has the pedigree to step up to the plate, with a quite startling sultry tone and phrasing techniques that frequently draw comparisons to Billie Holiday. There’s also her geographical background that is almost too good to be true. Peyroux was born in Georgia, grew up in Paris and also ticks the box marked New Orleans.
Over time, the project changed shape somewhat, to take in songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman. The Blue Room then, is only a partial homage to Charles’ groundbreaking album which is something of a disappointment but there’s homage enough to get an idea how it might have sounded had the concept been followed through.
Something the concept could never hope to achieve is the sheer social and political importance of Ray Charles’ original. Covering Country songs at a time when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak, and America in a state of turmoil was an incredibly bold move and more significantly, a unifying one. Akin to Elvis reinterpreting the blues and rock ‘n’ roll (for want of a better term ‘black music’), Charles took a predominantly White music form and made it his own. He united black and white audiences with music, and as such has rightly been heralded as a pioneer and one of the most important recording artists of all time. Understandably, The Blue Room could never hope to have such lofty expectations, which perhaps explains the move away from a total reinterpretation of Modern Sounds.
The most that can be hoped for is some startling reinterpretations and for the most part, Peyroux and Klein succeed. Born To Lose, the song around which the project came together is beautifully realised. A sparse arrangement allows Peyroux to showcase her relaxed vocal style perfectly, but it is the band that really steals the show. The mournful trumpet solo and subtle piano work is utterly heartbreaking, whilst the guitar playing is a direct link back to the song’s Country origins. I Can’t Stop Loving You is perhaps a little too polite for its own good. There’s a sultry swing certainly, but the raw emotion that the song requires is sadly lacking.
Where the album truly succeeds is in the musical arrangements, and in particular the strings supplied by Vince Mendoza. John Hartford‘s Gentle On My Mind possesses a uniquely classy and haunting quality thanks to his careful orchestration. His work on the interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s Bird On A Wire is positively cinematic at times despite being one of the most sedate arrangements on the album. It also features Peyroux’s most spellbinding vocal, hushed but awash with regret and hurt. Take These Chains meanwhile zips along in a sprightly manner. The backbeat might be a loose shuffle, but it has purpose. The strings add theatrical gloss, whilst Peyroux delivers an almost cheeky jazz vocal that teeters on the brink of being almost too chipper.
Bye Bye Love steps over that divide however and feels a little too light for its own good. Her take on Warren Zevon‘s Deperadoes Under The Eaves however is inspired, and sounds not unlike how Charles might have interpreted it himself. Mendoza’s strings pack an emotional punch, whilst Peyroux is an almost understated presence simply stepping forward to provide what the song needs rather than have it revolve purely around her. It’s another successful moment on an album that hits the mark fairly frequently. Admittedly there are a few misses (Changing All Those Changes for example), and it is sometimes a little too languid, but generally Peyroux’s homage to a masterful musician finds the right tones.