Mixed messages

By JON GARELICK  |  June 2, 2009

That schooled yet heartfelt writing keeps the music resilient over multiple listens — and keeps the players on their toes. And Rosen — who leads the band with Molinari — is always happy to have you recognize the influences. "I love when people can't quite place it and keep saying, "What is that?' " He adds, "I fell in love with free jazz in the '70s, but I've also always had a devotion to and reverence for the tradition."

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CHANTEUSE; Gardot doesn’t like genre distinctions — she prefers to chase the music she hears.

Since Verve released Melody Gardot's Worrisome Heart last year, her story has been all over the jazz magazines. So if you're just catching up, here it is again. In 2003, at 19, while a fashion student at Philadelphia Community College, she was riding her bicycle when she got hit by a jeep making an illegal left turn. She suffered severe head injuries and multiple pelvic fractures and was bedridden for most of a year. During that time, at the recommendation of her doctor, the former piano student taught herself guitar as a kind of therapy. It was also the one instrument she could play while lying on her back.

Flash forward. At the 2008 Newport Jazz Festival, she performed on the small Harborside Stage to a rapt audience. Wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat, form-fitting summer dress, high heels, and tinted glasses, her blond hair falling to her shoulders, she was glamour itself. Her repartee with the audience was quick-witted and even biting. When she got up to move from piano bench to a stool to play guitar, she used a cane. More impressive than her mysterious allure, though, was her singing. Her vocal timbre and precise diction made every word she sang hover expectantly in the summer air. Her voice was not big, but it was confident, with a dark wisp of vibrato that brought to mind Nina Simone and even Eartha Kitt (that biting wit and sexual confidence).

Worrisome Heart was a re-release of an independent production. But for My One and Only Thrill, her real Verve debut, the Universal imprint has brought out the big guns: Larry Klein — former husband of Joni Mitchell as well as producer of everyone from Mitchell to Madeleine Peyroux to Peter Gabriel and Don Henley — and ace arranger Vince Mendoza.

If Worrisome Heart leaned more toward singer-songwriter folk, My One and Only Thrill's 10 originals (two written with Norah Jones collaborator Jesse Harris) revel in the broader harmonic palettes of the Great American Songbook and classic '60s bossa nova. From one track to the next, you could be swimming in the strings of a Sinatra "suicide album" like Only the Lonely or grooving to Getz/Gilberto.

Which isn't to say there isn't also some churchy blues here, as in "Who Will Comfort Me," where organ and plunger-mute trumpet join soft handclaps and an out-chorus "Oh Lord" call-and-response between Gardot and the guys that cracks her up on tape. And there's a bit of Simone and Kitt in "Your Heart Is As Black As Night," with its "St. James Infirmary" feel.

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