Review: Melody Gardot at Enwave Theatre

This is more love letter than review. I feel fortunate to have been able to see and hear this stand-out voice-in-the-making as Melody Gardot brought her well-heeled jazz ensemble to Toronto’s Enwave Theatre for a 90 (seemed like 30)-minute show. First off, if you have a talent demanding an audience’s complete attention, may I recommend Harbourfont’s relatively intimate, 300-seat Enwave? Its dark, narrow, tiered confines and outstanding acoustics encourage an entirely focused evening of musical intensity and absolute enjoyment.

Charged with covering the return of Gardot to the city, photography proved more than a challenge. How was I to know the stark lighting was not simply a component of Gardot’s superbly-packaged, semi-cinematic aura? She’s light-hypersensitive, if not lucky to be alive, after a fateful hit-and-run at age 19 almost cost her her life. The long-legged, sensuous beauty walks as if on egg shells, supported by a sleek, black cane (Citizen Cane, she calls it)  looking like something out of a film noir. Fact is, her pelvis was shattered, her spine damaged and the talented piano player invested her substantial healing time into her craft – even learning to play guitar, being unable to sit at the piano. She invested herself  – wholly – into the therapeutic powers of songwriting, her muse taking full advantage of the situation.

Years later, Gardot is still suffering from light and sound sensitivity, prone to memory loss and remains dependent upon the cane for stability and balance. A fashion design intender in her previous life, you can’t help but think it’s still all part of the unique persona she presents on-stage: a sleek, voluptuous package packed into a tight, black, side-split dress, stiletto heels, bright red lipstick and sunglasses so dark as to cause Jackie O to do a double-take, if she was still around.

Cruella de Sexpot? Scatwoman? Doesn’t hurt the deeply introspective and oft-romantic lyrical content of her songs, now couched in an adventurous jazz context, surrounded by three players who dig deep into various schools – traditional and otherwise – in their bid to embellish each original idea.

Irwin Hall on woodwinds lent a playful, inventive and occasionally boisterous side, whether on flute, clarinet or Kirk-like double-sax. Bassist Charnett Moffett patiently held court in the background but, on numerous occasions, turned in rousing solos revealing a wide girth of sonic influences, covering traditional ground with inventive bursts of near-fusion and most things in-between. Drummer Charles Staab III could wring percussive effects from a thimble if he wanted to, and did double-duty in his rhythm section with freewheeling fills and impassioned, yet subtle, accompaniment.

As for Gardot, clearly the centerpiece and keen ambassador for her predominantly original material, she manages to surmount the musicians’ curse of comparison. Criticized for being more pop than jazz or more jazz than pop, she’s drawn references to Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Joni Mitchell (Joni’s ex, Larry Klein, produced her latest) and even, from Business Week of all places, “Billie Holiday to Tom Waits”. Clearly something’s going on here worth knowing more about.

Her vocals seem steeped in the ‘50s sound of Doris Day with hints of Peggy Lee, while visions of Lauren Bacall swirl by in the acute intimacy of her presentation – like so much cigarette smoke curling above a dimly-lit streetlamp on a still night along the Seine. She’s an expert at creating and sustaining a mood to build an atmosphere you could cut with a knife – ideal for her surprisingly personal brand of storytelling. In truth, the New Jersey-born, 25-year old chanteuse is fast-phasing into a category of her own making. 

The highly lyrical, storytelling calibre of her originals combine with the darkly erotic purr of her expressive voice and a distinctively retro air to carve out an intimacy which quickly connects with the simpatico listener. This occasion was enriched by Gardot’s highly entertaining introductions to some of her key songs – ‘the story behind the story’, adding immensely to the experience. The origins of the song “Deep Within The Corners Of My Mind” was explained through the Portuguese expression “Saudade”, defined as a deep longing for something, or someone, lost.

Fast on her feet, she calmly dealt with the witless audience member whose intrusive cell-phone ring interrupted the intro of “Baby I’m A Fool”, altering her lyrics to render him the fool, eventually finishing him off for his poor taste in ringtones – “ripping him a new one” was the term used, proving this quirky songstress was far from being the helpless princess. Butter in her hands, we were. Other highlights included her first song written entirely in French, “Les Etoiles” and the title track of her latest album, “My One And Only Thrill”, while Ellington’s “Caravan” proved popular, accented by a stand-out bass solo. Her cover of Gershwin’s “Summertime”, merging into a slinky version of Otis Blackwell’s “Fever” left its mark, as well, yet it’s her originals that distinguish her as a talent to look out for.

Her compositional ability to colour each song on an individual basis and in various hues – from a hushed intimate setting to unleashing a full Brazilian bossa nova – speaks highly of her range and potential. Gardot could likely unearth a deeply romantic, if not borderline erotic, love story from time spent alone with a hot cup of coffee, if so inclined – making it sound entirely believable with those smoldering vocals and distinctive gifts on piano and guitar.

Man, would I kill to buy her that cup of coffee…….

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  1. avatar
    Eric 28 June, 2010 at 22:35

    Thanks, Tony. It really was a unique night out…..next time. She appears to like Toronto and wants to come back to spend more time…

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