Review: Lisa Ekdahl

Review: Lisa Ekdahl,
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, February 24th, 2010, Review by Zena James)

Lisa Ekdahl is a pixie-like Swedish singer and composer, whom I knew of only as a jazz artist in the nineties with the superb Peter Nordahl trio. I was never a fan of the high-pitched, child-like voice for which she’s known, but I did find myself being drawn in by her arrangements and strong storytelling ability. It turns out that since 1994 she’s released 10 albums, only two of which were jazz and most of which were in Swedish.

Her latest offering, Give Me That Slow Knowing Smile, is a departure from her previous work and certainly is nothing like the jazz recordings. Light, delicate and folky in its theme and delivery, its main strengths are fine diction, simplicity and a few catchy pop riffs.

Like Madeleine Peyroux at the Festival Hall some months earlier, Ekdahl opted for an intimate setting, staying seated for several of the numbers. The World Keeps Turning was a convincing and graceful opener by her multi-talented trio, with a great Hammond solo by pianist Tomas Hallonsten.

The album’s title track was next up, featuring guitar alongside Hammond and piano, likeable backing vocals and a great deal of whistling, not my favourite sound but somehow strangely infectious and with an almost Peyroux-type Parisian feel.

During Daybreak, multi-tasking quickly became a feature for every musician. The Hammond-playing gave way to a trumpet solo by Tomas Hallonsten, who later combined both and soon made that his party piece.

And then came the jazz. A breathy Nature Boy settled into a sweet rhumba with a beautiful piano solo, though it didn’t quite capture the intimacy of the 1999 Back to Earth album version. Billie Holiday’s little-known Now or Never was the first up-tempo number and gave Hallonsten a chance to swap Hammond and trumpet for Melodica. This number, at last, got the polite South Bank audience going.

Ekdahl never projected much energy, preferring a calm, meditative style and delivery. Bjork’s It’s Oh So Quiet, complete with glockenspiel, gave us a fun contrast to the more reflective grown up numbers but lacked the crazy edginess that we can rely on with Bjork.

Beautiful Boy from the new album saw Ekdahl retreat part way through to hand over to the capable vocal talents of the musicians, attracting the first cheers of the night. It segued into an endearing and laid-back Laziest Girl In Town (again, from the jazzier Back to Earth).

The “last song”, was a charming, baion treatment of My Heart Belongs to Daddy. Not usually my cup of tea but actually quite infectious with an a capella and bodhran start; a welcome burst of energy that brought loud cheers from an excited Scandinavian contingent.

The first encore was the only song in Swedish, “Öppna Upp Ditt Fönster” (Open Your Window) (above), much to the delight and amusement of the Scandinavians, whose cries for the mother tongue caused the band to deliberate at length as they changed tack.

The final tune, One Life, is one of the strongest from the new album and was performed with far more passion and gusto than the more gentle recorded version. Religiously-inclined lyrics about making the most of life (“ All of us came in through the same door. We’ve got one life coming from that one place…”) were genuinely moving. “While I’m here I’m singing from my heart. “ And at last she really did. It was the only song of the night where I felt Ekdahl really let go, projected her voice and sang with real fervour. It wasn’t her usual style, but it really worked for me, even if I had to wait until the end for it.

Ekdahl’s soft, child-like sound has its admirers, but it is definitely an acquired taste. This one date in London was a pleasant gig that pleased the fans, but for me it wasn’t an exciting one. But her jazz albums from the nineties….now they’re another story.

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  1. This concert was a very pleasant surprise to me as I did not know her work and was drawn by chance (recommended by a friend). At first I found the voice slightly irritating and her manner contrived but by the end of the evening I was really drawn in and have since bought several albums – an early jazz one and a more recent Swedish-only one and like them both. A great discovery.

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