Heaven to her: Young jazz talent resurrects the past

Jazz loves a good legend. Madeleine Peyroux, the young American singer who performs Sunday at Cine Kerameikos in Athens, has one of her own: Just when she’s getting famous, she disappears. In 1996, after spending most of her teens busking on the streets of Paris, Peyroux (pronounced like the country Peru) debuted at 22 with «Dreamland,» a spare, lucid recording spotlighting her eccentrically nostalgic voice. Jazz and pop critics fawned over her heavy-lidded vocals, calling her the new Billie Holiday. The album sold 200,000 copies worldwide, and Peyroux looked destined to join Canadian pianist and singer Diana Krall on jazz crossover’s center stage. Then she was gone. She cut ties with her record label Atlantic, sang in small Tennessee clubs, and returned to busking on the streets of Paris. She also had surgery to remove a cyst in her throat. When she emerged eight years later on the roots label Rounder Records with an album evoking even stronger comparisons to Holiday, she had a reputation laced with mystique. Never mind that «Careless Love,» got big partly because it was sold in Starbucks, that most mainstream of yuppie coffee shop chains, or that one of her latest songs was featured on a Simple cosmetics commercial. The legend, now marketable, had set: Madeleine Peyroux was different, mercurial, unpredictable, no good little jazzy-pop girl like Diana Krall or Norah Jones. Her music was almost beside the point, which is why her legend betrays her. Madeleine Peyroux has considerable talent. Her serious-sensual tone in Bob Dylan covers, broken-hearted interpretation of blues, and angel-spun innocence in Leonard Cohen’s «Dance Me to the End of Love» shimmer with the potential of a true artist. Her live performances, though sometimes filled with awkward stage banter, often leave audiences lulled to bliss. At 22, she could transform «Lovesick Blues,» a tune popularized by 1920s blues-and-jazz legend Bessie Smith, into her own modern tale of heartache. At 31, her voice now mature enough to sound hauntingly like Holiday’s, she revives the troubled singer’s deeply nuanced longing for home in a beautiful reading of «This is Heaven to Me.» Though Peyroux is not Holiday’s equal in style, individualism or temperament, she has a formidable ability to resurrect this long-gone music in real time. «She makes something hers out of something borrowed,» said Keith Whitehead, the jazz critic for National Public Radio in the US, in a review of «Careless Love.» And that is a gift in itself. Peyroux has also lived a much cozier and subdued life than Holiday, who weathered an abusive childhood, drug and alcohol addiction, and a series of violent relationships before succumbing to heart and liver disease at 44. The introverted child of two university lecturers, Peyroux was born in the American college town of Athens, Georgia, and spent her youth in Brooklyn and southern California. Her New Orleans-born father familiarized her with his favorite musical stars and encouraged her to learn guitar. After her parents separated, she moved to Paris in her early teens with her mother and plunged into the city’s heady and gallant music culture, dropping out of school to perform with bands like the Riverboat Shufflers and the Lost and Wandering Blues & Jazz Band. She told a British journalist that she found «psychological freedom» singing on the Parisian streets, which a more traditional, schoolbound education would not have offered. This freedom continues to thread her live and recorded performances. Fragile and honest, her voice aims for revelation, not acceptance. Some jazz critics don’t buy her delicate rawness, saying she is more of a shallow mimic than a bona-fide discovery. But others critics find her coruscating. When she performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August in a sold-out show, she left the usually brutal festival critics agog. «It was the performance of a star in the ascendant,» one critic wrote. But despite this continuing evaluation of her work, the legend of the disappearing diva persists. When her Edinburgh show started an hour late, people wondered out loud if she was really going to show up. A couple of weeks later, when Peyroux was doing promotional work for «Careless Love,» the UK division of Universal Music Group International, which licenses the singer’s recordings outside of North America, said Peyroux had vanished. Record bosses announced to the international press that it had hired a private investigator to find her. She was actually never lost: Universal Classics & Jazz UK used her reputation as a wandering soul as a public relations ploy to boost sales for «Careless Love.» Managers for Peyroux, who knew nothing of the UCJ tactic, demanded an apology. Jazz may love its legends – Charlie Parker’s fatal affair with heroin, Holiday’s uncompromising spiral into the tomb of her emotions, Thelonious Monk’s lifelong struggle with his manic-depressive genius – but it hasn’t let the real story of Madeleine Peyroux bloom. The legend of the disappearing diva ignores a basic requirement of art, which is not just about self-expression. Art also means inhabiting the expressions of others and making them feel authentic. Any self-respecting artist who can’t do this anymore finds a way to renew the connection. Consider the great jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who dropped out of his high-profile scene at 29 to spend two years playing on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. «The grandeur gives you perspective,» Rollins told a journalist in 1961, when he emerged from his sabbatical with one of his best recordings, «The Bridge.» So is the case with Peyroux and her «Careless Love.» Her now-legendary eight-year pause was just a way to find a little perspective. As Peyroux said in a recent interview, «Now I’m a little closer to figuring out how to mold my life rather than allow it to be molded.» Madeleine Peyroux will perform at 9 p.m. Sunday at Cine Kerameikos at 58 Kerameikou and Marathonas in downtown Athens. Tickets cost 35 euros and are available through Ticket House and Metropolis record stores. For more information, call Cine Kerameikos at 210.522.2222.