Does the J-word send shivers down your spine and make your heart sink? Y’know… whisper it…jazz. Forget Jamie Cullum and men in smoking jackets performing interminable masturbatory sax solos – jazz can actually be rather captivating in the right hands.
This certainly applies to Madeleine Peyroux. The New York songstress has been quietly building up a fanbase since her 1996 debut Dreamland. The long delayed follow-up Careless Love was a worldwide hit, and developed her niche as jazz singer for the masses who actually channelled the spirit of Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf into her performances.
While the mega-selling likes of Melua and Cullum plough the same tired, bland furrow, Peyroux makes music with real soul. Sure, her records have probably soundtracked a few thousand dinner parties, but to dismiss her as coffee table fodder does this talented performer a disservice.
There are no frills to her live shows. A tight band provides the backing, while she immerses herself in her back-catalogue and teases fresh interpretations out of old songs. At times she has a tendency to vocally wander around the tune a bit too much, and while hardly reaching Mariah Carey levels of histrionics, it can begin to pall after a while. In the scheme of things, however, it’s a minor quibble, as the sheer hypnotic quality of her voice has the audiences undivided attention throughout.
Complaints about her lack of showmanship tend to miss the point somewhat. Her charisma comes from the music, rather than what she does on stage, and in fairness she has become more animated since her last album, which does help in a venue of the Symphony Hall’s size and grandeur (there’s an immense church organ on the stage, dwarfing anyone who stands in front of it).
The newer songs from current album Half The Perfect World go down best, and are the most successful at filling such a domineering setting. The cover of Joni Mitchell’s River (a duet with KD Lang on the record) is a highlight, as is the haunting Chaplin’s Smile, and if things do have a tendency to get a little one-paced, there’ soon another thrilling interpretation of an old classic, whether it be Dylan’s You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, or Fred Neil’s Everybodys Talkin.’
That’s not to say her original compositions don’t have the power to stand up to the covers, a little variety just helps the gig remain gripping from start to finish.
Forget the J-word, if you like music with beauty and soul, Peyroux’s your girl.