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REVIEW: Melody Gardot at the Royal Festival Hall (2018 EFG LJF)

Melody Gardot in 2010
Photo credit: Stefanie Meynberg/ Creative Commons

Melody Gardot
(Royal Festival Hall. 25 November 2018. London Jazz Festival. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

“Is that Guy Barker?” I asked my companion. Sure enough, Guy Barker had joined the impressively large string section forming up as we waited for Melody Gardot to appear in the concert which was to be the grand finale of this year’s London Jazz Festival. A moment later the star herself strode onstage, exuding effortless elegance and charisma.

Melody Gardot is much more than one of the finest singers currently operating. She is also a formidable songwriter and a restless experimenter. It’s this last quality which has given rise to the unusual ensemble gathered for this concert. Gardot’s band is essentially a lean and stripped down affair – herself adroitly playing piano (and, on one number, guitar) along with her regular guitarist Mitchell Long, Chuck Staab on drums and Sam Minaie on bass, plus the unusual addition of Stephan Braun on cello. Braun overlaps with, and links the combo to, the full-blown string section under the direction of Guy Barker.

A dark and ominous instrumental introduction showed what this unusual ensemble was capable of. Gardot reached into the grand piano and tugged at its heartstrings, Staab played a skipping beat on the drums, Long’s guitar shone like a beacon in the darkness and Braun created echo chamber effects before modulating into a melancholy accordion sound. The first song proper, Bad News had a menacing Weimar-cabaret swagger, like a swaying drunk who might turn dangerous, accompanied by Minaie’s arco bass, Long’s ghostly guitar and Melody Gardot’s skeletal piano.

The mood lightened dramatically with the sunny Latin uplift of If the Stars Were Mine. This joyous, loving song saw Gardot scatting in a duet with Braun, and ended with the cellist drawing plaintive bird-like cries from his instrument. Baby I’m a Fool saw the full string section joining in – with Melody Gardot on solo guitar. The strings added a great emotional depth and also called to mind the grand productions of Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle.

Gardot’s sultry, yearning singing was tenderly decisive on Our Love is Easy, a slinky, gliding, slow-motion torch song which the strings opened up to an epic scope – epic, yet somehow still stripped-down and intimate; understated but extraordinarily potent. Melody Gardot’s voice was sensual and articulate, evoking the deepest of feeling with the most subtle of nuance. For Deep Within the Corners of My Mind the strings created a searching, melancholic backdrop for her pondering and wounded vocals – a dark pillow for her to cry on.

The mood lifted decisively again with Morning Sun on which Braun created rainfall effects with a cluster of wooden beads and Long played eerie slide guitar. Gardot’s singing began as otherworldly whoops but soon blossomed with a simple warmth which carried great emotional impact, flowing with the growing excitement of the melody. Minaie’s plucked bass was like a big heartbeat and Staab delivered drumming of sweet, thunderous complexity. (“That big-ass thing on the drums,” Ms Gardot calls it, later.)

In an evening of original songs, You Don’t Know What Love Is was a striking departure. And for this singular occurrence Guy Barker picked up his muted trumpet. Melody Gardot described it as a tribute to Chet Baker, but the sleek, moody modernism of Barker’s playing was more like vintage Miles Davis. Meanwhile, Gardot put the lyrics through the looking glass of her unique delivery and sensibility. Afterwards, as the audience applauded until their hands hurt, Melody Gardot went and embraced Guy Barker. And Barker dropped his mute on the floor – as indeed who wouldn’t?

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