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Peyroux's stylistic jigsaw of styles

October 09, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Two names kept coming to mind Friday night during Madeleine Peyroux's concert at UCLA's Royce Hall. And no, the first one wasn't Billie Holiday. It was Norah Jones, because it's hard to imagine Peyroux achieving the breakout success she's had over the last two years had Jones not blazed a path before her.

Jones' breakthrough 2002 album, "Come Away With Me," established an intriguing pattern, a virtual subgenre, for vocalists -- one that departed from the dominance of the melisma-laden soul-R&B style as well as multi-tracked anonymity of dance-oriented music in favor of a gentle, breathy, jazz-tinged intimacy. Jones' singing is tinged with an earthy, country quality; Peyroux's adds a soupcon of European cabaret. But the similarities are evident, fulfilling an apparent desire for laid-back subtlety at a time when in-your-face acerbity is more the norm.

It's no news that Peyroux is viewed skeptically by some in the jazz world for what appears to be an overt imitation of Holiday. Others are pleased by what they hear as a return to some fantasized vision of mid-20th century nightclub atmosphere.

Neither comparison -- to Jones or Holiday -- is exactly on target. Peyroux, in fact, seems to have a jigsaw musical personality. When she arrived onstage at Royce, guitar in hand, wearing a long, plain dress, she had the look of a '60s folkie. Many of the tunes, mostly from her new Rounder album, "Half the Perfect World" (titled after the Leonard Cohen-Anjani Thomas song), displayed Peyroux's most engaging quality, a kind of postmodernist coolness that inevitably draws the listener into her readings. On Serge Gainsbourg's "La Javanaise," she sang in French, revealing yet another piece of the stylistic roots that trace back to her years of living in Paris.

But other songs -- Cohen's "Blue Alert" as well as standards such as Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" and more contemporary pieces such as Tom Waits' "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night" -- immediately called up the Holiday aspects of her musical persona. Sliding into and out of notes, tightening her throat, articulating lyrics precisely, she produced sound and phrasing almost eerily reminiscent of Holiday's plaintive cry. The effect was enhanced by Ron Miles' atmospheric trumpet solos.

The Holiday similarities, however, were the least intriguing aspects of Peyroux's performance. And anyone who hears her singing as a "channeling" of Holiday simply doesn't understand what Holiday was all about.

Wisely, Peyroux seems to be consciously moving away from the Holiday connection. Useful though that reference may have been in the early stages of her career, the pleasures of her current work -- particularly in her compelling versions of Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" and Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" -- suggest the potential for her stylistic jigsaw puzzle to coalesce into a uniquely personal voice.

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