Melody Gardot at the Kimmel Center
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
October 17, 2009
"A Star is Born" is the only adequate way to characterize singer-composer Melody Gardot's appearance on the stage of the Perelman Theater of the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on October 17. While the recent buzz surrounding her debut recordings are all about her fine jazz and blues vocalizing with a sensual flair, neither the media spin nor her first two albums prepare one for the power, resilience, and charisma she manifests in a live performance. Simply put, in concert Gardot has the reach and grandness of a Judy Garland or Edith Piaf. She took over the stage, the instrumentalists, the audience, and the music, making each into a vehicle for her own creative expressionsomething only a true diva can accomplish.
Regarding Gardot's approach as a jazz singer, the comparison that comes to mind is with Nina Simone, who cut her teeth playing piano in small Philadelphia clubs as did Gardot several decades later. The 26-year-old Gardot, like Simone, is musically astute, has a will of her own, and a knack for incorporating diverse musical and world influences into her singing and composing. Both artists are strongly rooted in the blues and, in Gardot's case, rhythm-and-blues. And both have a unique style and "message" that distinguishes them from their peers. Although, unlike Simone, she's not African American, she knows her own pain, and conveys in her music something important about marginalization and the human condition.
Gardot, in addition, has a command of the stage that is rare and unforgettable. At this concert, she more than made up for a puzzling, unexplained delay in the program and personnel changes from the Playbill listing. Coming on a capella as a sexy blonde Parisian blonde bombshell with a touch of Madonna, she provided her own powerful rhythm by stomping her stiletto heels on the wooden stage and snapping her fingers in the air like a flamenco dancer, as she sang "No More My Lord," with unrelenting intensity. Next she introduced her sidemen, Irwin Hall on sax, clarinet, and flute, Ken Pendergast on bass, and Chuck Staab on drums for a rhythmic performance of "The Rain," from her new CD, My One and Only Thrill. By this time, Gardot had the audience in the palm of her hands as she sang two more numbers from that album, "Your Heart is as Black as Night" and "Les Etoiles." The French influence became apparent in her cabaret styling on some choruses with electrifying echoes of Piaf's fast vibrato and slight downward glissandos.
Gardot's musical swagger became evident as well in her choice of musicians. Bassist Pendergast and drummer Staab are top of the line "locals" and threw themselves into the music with devotion. Reed player Hall is someone Gardot discovered while on tour in Japan. He shone in his solo on Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine," showing a mastery of both traditional and modern jazz idioms with an understated sound that highlighted the originality of his improvisation. At one point, reminiscent of multi-reedist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, he played two saxophones simultaneously, though his musical sensitivity, like Kirk's, was more impressive than the prestidigitation alone. He performed both backup and solos reflectively and with a sophisticated grasp of harmonies and melodic lines.
Gardot returned to her Thrill CD with two originals, "Baby I'm a Fool" and "If the Stars Were Mine," interspersed with "Pretend I Don't Exist." She then proceeded to the title tune of her debut CD, Worrisome Heart , followed by "Love Me Like a River Does" from the same album. It is remarkable that Gardot writes not just a few but nearly all of the songs she sings. She has said that writing music is therapy for the injuries and brain disorder she sustained in a bicycle accident in 2003 when she was hit by an automobile. Here again, her musical capabilities proved remarkable, as her songs magically conveyed the impression of being "standards" on account of their expressive melodic qualities and the universal meanings of her lyrics. Two more songs from Thrill"Deep Within the Corners of My Mind" and "Who Will Comfort Me"further reflected her emotional depth and world music awareness. When she picked up the guitar for Harold Arlen's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," she presented it as an homage to her grandmother, who exposed her repeatedly in childhood to doses of The Wizard of Oz. The quietness of her rendition, which contrasted with the intensity of her performance up until then, seemed to give a gentle nod to Judy Garland.
Following a standing ovation, Gardot and her group did a rocking and dramatic encore of Ellington-Tizol's "Caravan," reminding the thrilled audience that, although she includes numerous genres, her roots are in straight-ahead jazz.
Melody Gardot is a phenomenon. In a few short years she has developed from a local pianist into an international sensation possessing uncanny musical resilience and stage presence. She has accomplished this all under the lash of post-traumatic distress that makes each of her days a test of will and forbearance. None of these challenges shows on stage, however. All we see and hear is her power to overcome and move forward. Someone with her perseverance, will, talent, and creativity certainly seems destined to succeed on the billboards and in the charts. We can only wish her well and hope that she will avert the injustice that too often befalls an exceptional musical talent. Someone with her musical acuity and ability to move an audience deserves only the best in life.