REVIEW: Melody Gardot at Pizza Express Dean Street

Melody Gardot at the 2015 Istanbul Jazz Festival
Photo credit: Graeme.D.Cooper. From Melody Gardot official Facebook page

Melody Gardot
(Pizza Express Soho, August 3rd 2015. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

With a new album out (reviewed here) the sublime American singer and songwriter Melody Gardot is making one of her all too rare UK visits in the wake of her  unforgettable appearance at the London Jazz Festival in 2012. And, in an astonishing move, the stadium-filling star elected to play two intimate sets at a bijou Soho jazz basement.

“I haven’t done a club in a long time,” says Gardot. “And I’d forgotten how cool it was.” Lit by blue lights, wearing a gipsy fortune-teller headscarf, dark glasses and a flowing black top, she cuts an elegant figure with her electric guitar. A rolling thunder of drums (by Charles Staab) and roiling bass (courtesy of Edwin Livingstone) open the set, with electric guitar from Gardot and Mitchell Long riding along on top like a hobo on a midnight freight. Eerie car-alarm effects ring out, perhaps courtesy of Devin Greenwood on electric keyboards, and then we’re treated to a swinging blast of horns — Irwin Hall on saxophone, James Casey on baritone sax and Shareef Clayton on trumpet.

The song is Same to You and it has a thumping, storming beat. Irwin Hall plays a gorgeous solo and Melody Gardot’s extraordinary voice makes itself heard, like an African tribal chant, a ululating whoop. Then suddenly it’s all funky, with Memphis-sound horn stabs as Hall scalds and scolds on his sax. Gardot looks chic with her stylish suit and electric guitar and that huge voice of hers rings out in trills and sultry exhortations. Her singing in She Don’t Know bounces off a tautly sprung platform of guitar and horns. It’s a swirling vortex of sound focused on that voice. The horns launch steeply into a section break and then it’s just Melody singing solo, ending on the seductive puff of an imaginary cigarette.

Bad News, one of the highlights of the new album, is delivered in a scorching film-noir performance. It begins with a dense maze of drumming from which emerges the slow lope of a swampy blues guitar. The horn section offer a menacing caution — like a warning to get out of a bar before a fight explodes. Irwin Hall’s sax wails and wobbles in trembling, fearful solo like an old drunk — who suddenly finds his voice and testifies to the sky in a clear, pure voice. Meanwhile Melody is reading the riot act in a coolly measured vocal performance and Edwin Livingstone’s bass is stomping through the darkness like a man looking for the exit.

March for Mingus is a showcase for Livingstone, whose upright bass plays rasping, scorched-charcoal smears of sound which set the room buzzing, gradually wrenched into aching musicality. Charles Staab provides carefully judged pointillist cymbal dashes, Melody rolls out a cautionary sermon on the piano and Shareef Clayton lets loose on the trumpet with long, strong, supple lines. There is a rising blaze of horns as Irwin Hall starts playing two saxophones at once, Roland Kirk style. It’s like a summer thunderstorm with Hall providing the lightning. Melody Gardot sings fragmentary, stream-of-consciousness scat, her voice rising in a great ecstatic whoop that propels us into the stratosphere. The song ends on a lonely plantation chant from her, which transforms like the sun rising… which is exactly right…

Because now it’s Morning Sun. Melody Gardot understands the importance of variation and change of mood, and has elegantly segued into this uplifting and joyous song. The horn section — recently a weapon of war — now wipes our troubled brow with smooth sweeps of sound. Hall gives a tender commentary, James Casey blows ecstatic strains and Sharif Clayton’s muted trumpet plays Miles-style modal phrases and moods. It’s heartfelt, soothing and sustaining, like putting your face out the car window after a storm — into a fresh, rain-sweetened breeze.

Melody Gardot at Pizza Express Dean Street
Photo credit: Roger Thomas

For Baby I’m a Fool the band strips down to just Melody, Mitchell Long and Charles Staab. They create a gentle, floating cloud of sound from which that cathedral-filling voice rings out. The band returns to deliver some raw blues with Sharif Clayton using his mute to play adroit growl trumpet which would have made Cootie Williams proud. He rocks the joint and rips the roof off. Preacherman, which commemorates the murder of Emmett Till is a rumbling Delta blues in which Mitchell Long’s guitar is tremendous and all-enveloping. But Long’s real virtuosity is reserved for his funky, chunky, amazing playing on It Gonna Come, where Sharif Clayton also excels himself, with a great outpouring on his trumpet solo, Livingstone shows what he can do on electric bass, and Devin Greenwood is outstanding as he fills the room with his chiming, skirling Hammond organ.

This was a not-to-be-missed opportunity to see the singer of the century in a club setting.

Categories: miscellaneous

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