If you listened to WEMU around 1997, you've heard Madeleine Peyroux, the jazz and blues singer who sounds unnervingly like Billie Holiday and was constantly on the air singing Bessie Smith's "Reckless Blues." The song stood out, and not just because of the Holiday echo. Peyroux was smart enough to know that her charms are built on softness and slowness, and she couldn't mimic Smith's big, brassy original. So she gave it a new seductiveness, cute and sly. Though just twenty-two when she recorded it, she convinced you that she'd grown old enough to control the men who used to drive her wild.
Peyroux's first album, Dreamland (1996), sold 200,000 copies, a huge success for a jazz album, and her voice's quirky, Holiday-like timbre was surely one reason. Expert, minimalist accompaniment helped too, from such star jazzmen as saxophonist (and Detroit native) James Carter and pianist Cyrus Chestnut.
By the time Peyroux recorded the album, she'd already lived in New Orleans, New York, and Paris, singing with bands and busking on streets. So the album's biggest strength was its huge range: she covered jazz standards, blues, Patsy Cline, and Edith Piaf, uniting the genres and generations into one clear, pure sound. She couldn't always reach as deeply into the lyrics as her heroines had, but she reawakened the songs with her sunny, sweet personality. No one will ever balance the romance and haunted loss in "Walkin' after Midnight" as perfectly as Cline, so where the Cowboy Junkies once went for haunted, Peyroux let the song be romantic.
I saw Peyroux at the Majestic Theater in Detroit back then, and she was as winning, warm, and humble as on record, making the cavernous old silent-film theater feel like an intimate Parisian club. Then she disappeared — no new album for eight years. She hasn't really explained her long break, but she's just released her second album, Careless Love.
Her repertoire, now even more daring, includes contemporary songwriters like the late, tormented Elliott Smith. Peyroux has also scored a coup for a young female jazz singer: cowriting a song with Norah Jones collaborator Jesse Harris. Their "Don't Wait Too Long" swings more than Jones's music, but is just as pleasing and melodic.
The accompaniment is less varied than on Dreamland; Peyroux recorded most of the songs with the same jazz combo, similar instrumentation, and similar tempos. She sounds less innocent, more cautious — only natural since she's thirty-one now. Her knack for reinterpreting and reviving classics is still strong, especially on Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." Where Dylan sounded excited, anxious to savor everything about his love before she left, Peyroux slows down and lets her love linger, changing a few notes, casually exploring as many feelings as she can.
Peyroux performs at the Ark on Monday, November 8.