It was hard to tell whether Isthmus Jazz Festival headliner Madeleine Peyroux was in a good mood last Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. She certainly seemed upbeat and engaged when she introduced "Blue Alert," the first tune of her 80-minute set, with a conspiratorial: "My first song is a Leonard Cohen song, so it's a little dirty."
But after a cool, near-perfect jazz-pop reading of Cohen's evocation of a half-satisfying erotic affair, the Paris-bred busker turned platinum-seller entered entirely different territory. Riffing off Billie Holiday's melancholy vocal style, Peyroux cruised perilously close to autopilot as she drifted through the Bessie Smith feature "Don't Cry Baby" and a pleasant version of "Don't Wait Too Long," a jazzy prewar-style blues she penned with Norah Jones' writing partner Jesse Harris. Both tunes appear on her breakout sophomore album, Careless Love, and her fans clearly connected with them. But they came across as jazz simulations rather than the real thing.
Fortunately, Peyroux came back to life each time she turned to material from her most recent album, Half the Perfect World. Her career-long fascination with Holiday isn't so apparent on the disc, and that's a plus. In concert, her versions of the Cohen-penned title track, her own lightly swinging bonbon "I'm Alright" and songs by Randy Newman, Tom Waits and Charlie Chaplin showcased an affection for singing behind the beat and creeping around the changes of a tune until the original melody almost becomes incidental.
Commenting that she was especially "corny" about the ukulele, Peyroux used the decidedly retro instrument to close out her set with a charming take on Chaplin's "Smile" that wouldn't have sounded out of place in an old vaudeville revue. When it was over, she offered a thin smile, then lingered on stage as cheers and peals of applause filled the hall. It was the first and only time she seemed to drink in the tsunami of adulation that was directed her way during much of the evening.
Apparently the audience's love made her happy. Then, again who knows? Even at her warmest, Peyroux's the kind of performer who nearly always keeps the audience at arm's length.
With the exception of keyboardist Jim Beard, whose solos on Hammond B-3 added a deeper shade of blue to several songs, Peyroux's backing quartet took few chances and offered up only a handful of rather perfunctory solos. And that was strange. After all, this was a jazz festival's headline gig, and jazz is all about taking improvisations into terra incognita.