Review: Melody Gardot at the Barbican

Derek Ansell finds much to applaud in 'singer extraordinary' Melody Gardot's rapturously received, full-house show at the Barbican, London

Photo: John Watson

Everybody in the jazz fraternity owes a debt of gratitude to the consultant in the USA who told Melody Gardot that studying music in depth was her best hope of a full recovery from serious injury. She was knocked off her bike by a motorist who jumped a red light, leaving her, when just 19 years old, badly injured; partially paralyzed with little co-ordination between her brain and instructions to her body for the simplest movements.

Other problems associated with the incident left her almost unable to function at all, but the medical man who discovered that she was a pianist and played in small venues advised a full programme of musical study, which ended some nine years later with Melody being an accomplished pianist, guitarist and a world-renowned singer. At first, when wracked with pain, she couldn’t manage the piano and that was when the guitar playing was born. It is, though, a remarkable story of determination, courage and musical potential that saw her come through to where she is today.

Her single, extended set at the Barbican on 2 April was rapturously received by a full house in a venue that takes an awful lot of filling up. On a darkened set full of dark shapes, boxes, ropes  and sundry other items, she was lighted singly, singing in that warm, husky, often voluptuous voice that promises (and delivers) so much to the discerning listener.

It is melodic in a sense that justifies her first name more than adequately and integrates easily with her accompanying musicians. And that might be Mitchell Long's gentle guitar lines or the furious strumming of his upturned cello by Stephen Brown—something you don’t see and hear too often! Then again she will walk to the darkened, almost black side of the large deep stage and leave Irwin Hall to fashion a long and intense tenor solo which culminates in him picking up a second saxophone and blowing into both simultaneously. I thought for one moment that Roland Kirk had come back to life when I heard that familiar, rasping sound.

Baby I'm A Fool is one of her most accessible compositions and this was a fine version wedding a rich, peppery voice with quiet cello, guitar and soft brushes on snare from percussionist Chuck Staab. Melody can sing with a fair degree of blues inflection but somehow it comes out differently to any other vocalist; her sound is so personal, a mixture of grit, honey, blues; all held together by the texture of a unique set of vocal cords like no other. Who Will Comfort Me from one of her most recent CDs brought out the gospel influences she has absorbed and integrated into her singing style. She sang it with vulnerable appeal in her voice as bluesy tenor wailed away beside her and dry ice smoke rose ominously from a freshly lighted corner of the darkened stage. Then there is her study of other languages such as French, Portuguese and Spanish; she sings fluently in these and tells a story in doing so.

Inevitably with such a unique stylist, with such a voice, there will be and have been cries of "Is she a jazz singer then?" Bassist/composer/bandleader Charlie Haden was convinced when he asked her to sing a track on his Sophisticated Ladies CD. Here she sings If I'm Lucky in compelling manner and competes more than adequately in tandem with high profile female singers such as Norah Jones, Diane Krall and many others. And this live presentation should have convinced any non-believers in the audience. Perhaps the biggest and best indication of the success and popularity of this young singer, still in her 20s, would be the two standing ovations she received at the end of this long, interval-free set.

Leaving the stage after taking their bows, the musicians sat out through a good five to six minutes of audience applause and calls and eventually, inevitably, returned; after they left for good, Melody sat down with guitarist Mitchell Long and sang a quiet, personal version of Over The Rainbow. No sense looking for shades of Judy Garland here; there were none. Her slow, melodic reading with stretched notes extending the sense of the dramatic was personal and a fitting ending to an impressive recital. Melody's interaction with the audience was the sign of a veteran performer, even if she's just 28 and only recently hit the international music scene.

Wise and experienced beyond her years was one explanation offered recently, and it is the one I think I would go along with. And if you can hold an audience of two thousand people in spellbound silence and then receive standing ovations there must be a lot more to come. I predict that there will be, but in the meantime it is well worthwhile catching up with the CDs and concert appearances of Melody Gardot, singer extraordinary.

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