(Royal Festival Hall. 19 November 2022. London Jazz Festival. Review by Andrew Cartmel)
When Melody Gardot last performed at the Royal Festival Hall, in 2018 (*), Guy Barker was up on stage with her. This year he’s two seats in front of us, part of the enthusiastic audience welcoming this fabulous singer back to London. During the pandemic Gardot found herself becalmed in Paris — great place for it — and as a result of her prolonged and unexpected stopover there she has radically reconfigured her touring band. Paris is where she met three core members of her new unit, drummer and percussionist Jorge Bezerra, contrabass player Christophe Thomas and, crucially, pianist Philippe Powell, who it transpires is the son of Brazilian music legend Baden Powell.
The rest of the musicians in this flexible and distinctive line up consisted of Gardot stalwart Irwin Hall on sax and flute, and her regular string section, plucked from the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, cellist Artyom Manukyan with Astghik Vardanyan and Gohar Papoyan on violins and Astghik Gazhoyan on viola.
The evening began with singer Laura Anglade accompanied by guitarist Sam Kirmayer, both from the thriving Montreal jazz scene. Kirmayer’s playing was outstanding and he proved a worthy and sympathetic foil for Anglade, who is clearly a vocalist we’ll be hearing more about — and from, I hope. Her pleasurable set was distinguished by terrific song choices, from Burke and Van Heusen to Michel Legrand, and some fine, fluent scat singing.
Next it was time for the main act, with Jumoké Fashola gamely providing an introduction despite a dead mic, and then we were into an eerie, minimalist and melancholic rendition of Wayfaring Stranger sung by Melody Gardot accompanied just by plucked double bass from Christophe Thomas and some cool percussion by Jorge Bezerra and then sour, sparse, sawing cello from Artyom Manukyan.
Irwin Hall’s sweetly swinging flute and Philippe Powell’s adroitly sparing piano were added for C’est Magnifique. Then on Love Song the piano turned into raindrops falling and Hall, now on sax, was positively ecstatic while Artyom Manukyan plucked plangent staccato pulses from the cello. Melody Gardot looked on with approval as he segued into stuttering high-speed bowing, an intoxicating, toe-tapping effect that built to a psychedelic frenzy. At this moment Ms Gardot seemed less a star vocalist than a Duke Ellington calibre bandleader watching with parental fondness as she unleashed her virtuoso soloists, with Christophe Thomas’s virile, sinewy bass coming in next.
Powell played tumbling chords and Melody Gardot’s vocals slid down the textures created by the angular strings like a skateboarder on a slope. This was an avant-garde ensemble with super-hip Melody presiding over it. The melancholy soundscape conjured by the strings transformed into honeyed, soulful R&B, and as they shimmered Melody Gardot sang a love song over them (From Paris with Love) in a voice as sweet and smoky as single malt whisky. Irwin Hall was her willing accomplice, providing lyrical clamour from his tenor sax.
On Our Love is Easy, Hall’s sax keened like an air raid warning in the midst of an erotic reverie as the strings provided rich texture and context. The clarity and power of Melody Gardot’s singing is easy to underestimate thanks to the subtlety and delicacy of her delivery. She is a great storyteller, a weaver of tales of love. This Foolish Heart Could Love You was a duet with Philippe Powell on chiming piano. Then they performed Fleurs du Dimanche and the string section joined in, lifting the song like a mother lifting a baby in her arms.
On Morning Sun Melody Gardot briefly reclaimed her place behind the piano and the influence of Carole King shone through clearly in her playing and writing — but she also called to mind Shirley Horn. Irwin Hall’s sax was dreamily beautiful and the ecstatic rising strings were played with an exquisite folk music feel.
The Seine-side composition Les Etoiles was performed in a highly appropriate Hot Club of Paris style with a spectacular rhapsodic gypsy contribution from Astghik Vardanyan on solo violin. Powell’s piano was like silver coins spilling and Jorge Bezerra’s hand drum added an excited heartbeat.
This is a vastly and rewardingly configurable line-up and there was something like genius in the kaleidoscope rearrangements of these musicians throughout the evening. Melody Gardot, who was already at the vanguard, is breaking new ground.
LINKS: John Bungey’s review of the Deluxe Edition of Sunset in the Blue from 2021
(*) Andrew Cartmel’s review of the 2018 RFH concert