Madeleine Peyroux, the headliner for this year's Isthmus Jazz Festival, emerged in the mid-'90s with a bluesy album called Dreamland. She was an interesting talent who recalled Billie Holiday.
Thanks to vocal problems and record-company snafus, Peyroux took eight years to release her next album, 2004's Careless Love. It found her moving beyond her sources to find a voice of her own. The languorous phrasing and taste for melancholy she inherited from Holiday were still there. But a new confidence in her own creative powers animated the set of wistful covers of Elliott Smith, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and W.C. Handy. Blending pop, blues and opiated prewar cocktail jazz, she'd fashioned a new kind of torch singing that made the bittersweet pangs of heartache cool again.
Careless Love struck a chord with audiences that had grown up on off-stream folk and rock artists and were searching for something more sophisticated. And it made Peyroux an international star.
Once Peyroux began packing venues worldwide, magazine and newspaper writers chalked up the Georgia-born singer's frequent musical flirtation with heartache and loneliness to growing up in a broken academic home and moving to Paris as a teenager. Her apparent disappearance at the end of a European tour (actually, she was in New York with her manager) confirmed that the sadness in the songs was a reflection of her own fragility.
But those analyses were too easy, far too romantic. Frankly, part of Peyroux's appeal is that she doesn't simply overlay her own emotions on cover material; she takes possession of it. You can feel her ruminating on the meaning of each song as it unfolds, discovering new dimensions of the lyrics as she goes along. Even she doesn't seem to know where the next verse will lead.
Peyroux showed more growth with her most recent album, 2006's Half the Perfect World. Switching back and forth between jazz standards, covers of artists she admires and originals she wrote with a variety of collaborators, she revealed a little more about herself and a whole lot about the breadth of her influences.
The album showcases a unique singer who has no intention of flipping on the cruise control just yet. When she interprets songs by Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits in concert, you can bet that giving pat, romantic readings of each song will be the furthest thing from her mind.