Tag Archives: Madeleine Peyroux

Top That!


I just got an invitation through the mails: “Your presence requested this evening – it’s formal. Top hat, white tie and tails …” Ah, it was so much easier for men like Irving Berlin, who wrote this, or Fred Astaire, who sang it. But for us gals, trying to decide what to wear on a night-out can be a nightmare – especially when there’s little to inspire in the shops.  Perhaps it’s time to take a leaf out of such style-leaders as Sarah Jessica Parker (above, in Dior Couture hat), and turn to men’s formal wear for inspiration. Of course, she wasn’t the first:

Marlene Dietrich sported top hat, white tie and tails (plus corsage) at a Hollywood ball in 1929, and often returned to the look – giving it a feminine twist in sparkly white, and investing it with even more sex appeal and glamour in Blonde Venus in 1933.  Just look at the effect on Cary Grant!

Dietrich was not the only 1930s style icon who cross-dressed in a memorable fashion.. Josephine Baker, the snake-hipped darling of La Revue Negre in Paris, may not have been French but she shared Dietrich’s continental sense of playing with expectations, and had a similarly daring fashion outlook:

One of the most stylish young women I’ve met is the wonderful jazz singer Melody Gardot who shares my passion for old movies . When she’s not channelling Lauren Bacall, Veronica Lake or another film noir heroine, she has something of a French look about her – check out the Breton stripes with the top hat:

By strange coincidence, Melody’s stablemate at Decca, Madeleine Peyroux (another old movie and old jazz fan) was photographed looking stunning in top hat and tails (like a sexy circus ringleader) for her last album, Bare Bones.


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November Jazz Reviews

Judy Carmichael, who wowed her Glasgow audience on Sunday night.

JUDY CARMICHAEL, CITY HALLS RECITAL ROOM, GLASGOW, 29.11.09

A touch of New York sparkle came to the City Halls Recital Room on Sunday night when the vivacious pianist Judy Carmichael made her Scottish debut as part of Jazz International’s busy winter programme. With her witty and engaging repartee, Carmichael had won her audience over before she even began playing, and it was clear from her fast-swinging, playful opener, Lulu’s Back in Town, that her sense of humour translated fluently into her music. Like the late, great Fats Waller – who, to judge by the way she occasionally seemed to tickle the ivories, producing little flurries of notes, is a hero – she has the lightest, most delicate of touches and a warm, rich tone.

Carmichael, who was nicknamed Stride by no less a jazz piano legend than Count Basie, cut quite a dash as she tapped her leopard-print stilettoes to keep time and bobbed her blonde curls along with the music. She has made a name for herself as a purveyor of this early style of jazz piano, but such numbers as an evocative, bluesy Lazy River (and, no, she’s not related to its composer, Hoagy) and her own Boisedale Blues, which had a rollicking boogie-woogie section in the middle, demonstrated that she’s more than a one-trick pony. She even sang on a few tunes; apparently a recent addition to her CV.

That said, it was her Earl Hines and Fats-flavoured output which most delighted the enthusiastic crowd, and it was a treat to hear such rarely exhumed gems as Love Is Just Around the Corner, Christopher Columbus and Gladyse being played with such affection and panache.

MADELEINE PEYROUX, QUEEN’S HALL, EDINBURGH, 25.11.09

Madeleine Peyroux has some following in Edinburgh. The Queen’s Hall was packed for the singer’s first concert in the capital in four years, and her welcome couldn’t have been warmer. In fact, the Queen’s Hall, with its relatively intimate, cabaret-style, atmosphere, proved to be the perfect venue for a 90-minute programme described by the 36-year-old American as “booze, blues and ballads”.

Peyroux has come a long way since her last appearance in Edinburgh. Back then, she barely spoke to the audience and looked uncomfortable when all eyes were on her. On Wednesday, she was ebullient, chatty, relaxed and very witty indeed. A handful of characteristically sad songs into the concert, she said: “I’ve made a pact with myself – that I’ll do two happy songs in my show…. Here is my happy break-up song – I’m Alright”.

That number, a sort of upbeat, uptempo torch song, was one of many which benefitted from the top-notch quartet that Peyroux had with her. Given her propensity for playing about with songs to the extent that they are sometimes unrecognisable, the presence of a band (including Hammond organist-pianist Gary “Liberace” Versace) playing the arrangements from her records acted as a sort of anchor and kept the songs from straying too far from the familiar recorded versions – though Peyroux always takes it to the limit.

There’s still something slightly unsettling about listening to Peyroux live: while her albums (notably the current one, Bare Bones, which was not much featured) are sublime; her choices – of notes, of how far behind in the lyrics to let herself fall, etc – are far from predictable, and there’s still, in the way she twists final notes and increases their volume, hints of the dying Billie Holiday about her voice.

MELODY GARDOT, QUEEN’S HALL, EDINBURGH, 18.11.09

She may have kept a busy Queen’s Hall waiting before she appeared onstage on Wednesday night, but, boy, did singer-songwriter Melody Gardot make up for lost time. Showing absolutely no sign of the physical frailty that regularly bothers her, the glamorous 24-year-old – with the Mae West sense of humour, and figure to match – sang continuously for 90 minutes and easily filled the hall when she performed her bluesier numbers.

Mind you, it didn’t start out too promisingly. Gardot’s opening song, The Rain (probably the weakest song on her superb current album, My One and Only Thrill), took a while to get going because she spent the first few moments onstage on her hands and knees doing something New Age-y with sand (only the front row and balcony seats could have seen what was going on), and then the song was preceded by a lot of seemingly random plucking of piano and bass strings, and clashing of cymbals while Gardot gyrated against the keyboard.

Once all that was out of the way, though, the concert was a revelation: here was a singer who sounded better live than on her sublime CD; her gorgeous, pitch-perfect, effortlessly agile vocals a joy whether on such exquisite ballads as Baby I’m a Fool, If The Stars Were Mine and Deep Within the Corners of My Mind or on raunchy blues-style numbers.

Gardot really came into her own once she dispensed with the theatrics and the slight aloofness of the first ten minutes and began chatting with the increasingly adoring audience.

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Musicians’ Movie Talk

Over the last however-many years of interviewing and socialising with jazz musicians of all ages and backgrounds, I’ve come to notice a certain leit-motif when it comes to their interests: many of them, like me, are avid old-movie buffs.

The thought had occurred before but it was rammed home last week when I met the young jazz singer-songwriter Melody Gardot. The way this girl speaks is as eloquent as her lyric-writing, and she has a way with an analogy that Raymond Chandler would have envied. Sitting, like teenagers, on her bed in her west London hotel, we talked about fashion, nail polish – the important stuff – before going on to the problems she has overcome since she was knocked off her bike by a hit-and-run Jeep a few years ago.

I had to ask if the long, wavy, peekaboo blonde hair was inspired by one of my favourite stars, Veronica  Lake (it wasn’t), and there ensued a chat about old movies. Gardot, it turns out, is a big Groucho Marx devotee, and she certainly knows her stuff – she even launched into an impersonation of him singing in A Night at the Opera. “I love you very mucho…”  Although she has trouble remembering things, certain movie moments haven’t slipped through the sieve that is her memory- and these are mostly from Fellini and Hitchcock films.

Being an aficionado of old movies is a trait that Gardot has in common with at least two of her label-mates: the first time I interviewed the singer-pianist Diana Krall, she told me that she loved the old MGM musicals (she had just been watching Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon in her hotel), and had been brought up watching classic films on TV.

There were certainly clues to her love of film in the songs that she recorded on her early albums: Dancing in the Dark (from the afore-mentioned The Band Wagon), I’ll String Along With You (My Dream Is Yours)  and  Let’s Face the Music And Dance (Follow the Fleet). Of course, old movies offer rich pickings for anyone on the look-out for great songs.

Singer Madeleine Peyroux was similarly raised on a diet of great Hollywood movies. In her case, Frank Capra had made a big impression with Mr Smith Goes to Washington – and James Stewart and Gary Cooper were her two favourite stars.

Of the Scottish jazz musicians with whom I’ve had great movie conversations, piano ace Brian Kellock and velvet-voiced singer Todd Gordon stand out; while the great American double-act of Marty Grosz (guitar) and Ken Peplowski (clarinet/tenor sax) is just as entertaining in a dinner table discussion of 1940s comedy character actors as it is onstage playing tunes from that era.

Clearly, for some of us, a love of jazz goes hand-in-hand with a love of old films. In many cases, it’s the result – initially anyway – of a parent’s influence. And let’s face it, with jazz especially, if you don’t start off being introduced to something that has perhaps been carefully chosen for you, it could well put you off for life..

Maybe the joint interest in jazz and old movies arises out of a predisposition to past pop culture – and possibly a teenage tendency towards individualism.  Who knows? All I can say is that the best conversations about old movies that I’ve had have been with jazzers. And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that my favourite jazz musicians are the ones who love the same comedy masters as me: Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, the Marx Brothers. After all, in both jazz and comedy, timing is everything…

* Read my full interview with Melody Gardot in The Herald Magazine next Saturday, June 13.

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Five star reviews

An awful lot of awfully good CDs have landed on my desk recently, and I’ve found myself giving one five-star review after another. A coincidence of CDs worthy of so many stars only happens once in a blue moon (ask Patrick Moore), so I thought it might be worth reproducing the reviews I wrote for Scotland on Sunday’s Review section here:

Johnny Varro Featuring Ken Peplowski: Two Legends of Jazz (Arbors Records ARCD 19363) Describing anyone who’s still alive as a legend is perhaps ill-advised, but this CD is so good that it’s easy to see why the record company got a bit carried away. Veteran pianist Johnny Varro and clarinettist Ken Peplowski make an ace team; it’s always a treat to hear the dynamic Peplowski in a small group setting, and on the 15 imaginatively chosen tracks here he’s to be found in duos, trios and full quartet (with drummer Joe Ascione and bassist Frank Tate). Download: Out of Nowhere, Love Locked Out

 

Madeleine Peyroux: Bare Bones (Decca 6132732) The sultry yet fragile-voiced Madeleine Peyroux might be excused for her long absence since her last album by the fact that for this CD, she wrote all the songs. Ironically, the opener, Instead, has the catchy, old-timey flavour associated with the tracks on her breakthrough album, 2004′s Careless Love, but the majority of the 11 songs are intensely personal, astonishingly intimate-sounding ballads which highlight the range of influence on Peyroux’s music. It’s uneven, raw and, in a couple of spots, misjudged, but overall it’s as seductive as Peyroux’s previous releases. Download: River of Tears, To Love You All Over Again

(I actually gave the Peyroux album four stars when I first reviewed it, but have since upgraded it)

 

Marty Grosz: Hot Winds, The Classic Sessions (Arbors Records ARCD 19379) Opportunities to hear the great American rhythm guitarist and singer Marty Grosz in Scotland have been disappointingly rare in recent years, so this new CD is a welcome treat. The 79-year-old is in his element, playing his own imaginative arrangements with a tight, swinging unit known as the Hot Winds – featuring regular Grosz cohorts Dan Block (clarinet), Scott Robinson (various horns) and Vince Giordano (string bass, bass sax etc). In his witty notes, Grosz says he’s often asked what “hot jazz” is. Well, this CD is the definition. Download: Rent Party Blues, I Just Couldn’t Take It Baby

 

Duke Heitger and Bernd Lhotzky: Doin’ the Voom Voom (Arbors Records ARCD 19382) For some CD-buyers, the bigger the band, the better the value – but this album is proof that the opposite is true: less is definitely more, especially when you have players of the calibre of the US trumpeter Duke Heitger and the German piano whiz Bernd Lhotzky. The 17 tracks on this CD are an tantalising blend of standards and lesser-heard numbers exhumed from the back catalogue of Duke Ellington, James P Johnson and several obscure composers; the ballads are particularly sublime, and highlight the fact that Heitger and Lhotzky are a perfect musical match. Download: Doin’ the Voom Voom, How Long Has This Been Going On

 

Ken Peplowski Meets Alan Barnes: Doodle Oodle (Woodville Records WVCD127) Anyone who heard them together at the Lockerbie Jazz Festival last year will know that the American clarinettist and tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski and Alan Barnes, the British clarinettist and player of several types of sax, make a brilliant team. That they relish each other’s musical company is evident in concert because one always invites the other to be a special guest, and it shines through just as strongly on this terrific CD, the ideal blend of unexpected tunes; swinging, lyrical playing and good, old-fashioned fun. Download: In Love in Vain, Shady Side*

* The  original Johnny Hodges-Gerry Mulligan recording of this Hodges composition is my all-time favourite single track – so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a new version of it. However, Barnes and Peps’ version, with AB on alto and KP on tenor (rather than JH on alto and GM on baritone), stands up in its own right and actually complements the original. I know: I just played them back to back…

 

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Paris Blues & Highs

I was down in London yesterday to interview the mysterious jazz singer and guitarist Madeleine Peyroux whom I last interviewed by phone in 2005, just as her cultish CD Careless Love was on the verge of exploding into the mainstream (it topped the charts in August of that year).
One of the main subjects we chatted about was Peyroux’s time as a busker in Paris. Turns out she was there, singing and working as the “hat passer” for a group of street musicians in and around the Latin Quarter at exactly the same time as I was bunking off my 12-hour week as an English language “assistante” to go and watch old movies in the Latin Quarter – the cinemas in the rue des Ecoles, to be precise. (I do have a vague recollection of listening to a group of jazz-playing buskers at the St Michel fountain – and I may have bought a tape of them…)
I probably saw more old movies on the big screen during that year than in the rest of my life: they showed seasons devoted to the Marx Brothers (and you haven’t lived until you’ve watched Duck Soup in the company of like-minded strangers), Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Astaire and Rogers, Frank Capra. This was where I saw Love in the Afternoon the one and only time ever, and ogled William Holden up close (in Sabrina) for the first time…
That year in France was one of abject poverty – until I got myself a summer job. But despite having no money, I did alright in the jazz stakes. During a trip back to Glasgow, I went to a concert at the late, lamented Glasgow Society of Musicians, a cavernous club, reeking with history (I think that’s what it was, anyway) behind an anonymous, speakeasy-style door on Berkeley Street. There I heard the American cornettist Warren Vache who struck up a conversation with my father and me. Upon learning of my imminent return to Paris, he told me to contact a pal of his, the trumpeter Alain Bouchet. And so I found myself at my first Parisian jazz club, nursing one Perrier (shared with my pal Siobhan) from 10pm-2am and then having to stay awake in the Pub St-Germain-des-Pres until the first RER train back to the suburbs at 6am. (Taxis were not an option – they cost money.) These were the lengths I had to go to back then to get my jazz fix.
I almost overdosed a couple of months later when, at the height of the Parisian summer, I crossed the city to attend the jazz festival at La Villette, the old abattoir, which, for one magical night, played host to the Newport All-Stars (with Warren, Scott Hamilton, etc) and the Re-birth of the Cool band, led by the great Gerry Mulligan – whose Glasgow concerts four years earlier had converted me from dabbler to devotee of this music….
* Madeleine Peyroux’s new CD, Bare Bones, is out now on Decca/Rounder – and my interview with her should be in The Herald Magazine on Saturday May 9th…

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