Born: 1973 in Athens, GA
Styles: Standards, Vocal Jazz
Vocalist Madeleine Peyroux can best be thought of as a Billie Holiday for the 1990s. Like Holiday, Peyroux was marketed as a jazz singer, when what she seems to do best is sing blues music. Though Peyroux may remind some listeners of Holiday, there are differences, and she has her own sense of phrasing and interpretation. Her 1996 Atlantic Records debut, Dreamland, is a brilliant recording, as Peyroux's distinctive voice is not hindered by overly intricate arrangements. Most of the accompaniment on the record is light and sparse, the way it should be for a singer with such a unique voice. Her debut album features a cast of top players from the New York jazz scene, including pianist Cyrus Chestnut, drummer Leon Parker, guitarists Vernon Reid and Marc Ribot, and saxophonist/clarinetist James Carter.
Peyroux was born in Athens, GA, and raised between Southern California, Brooklyn, and Paris. She began singing at age 15, when she discovered the Latin Quarter in Paris and became enamored with several street musicians. By 1989, she was working with a group of musicians called the Riverboat Shufflers, and after working for a while as a hat passer for the group, she began singing with them. She then joined the Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band at age 16, spending the next couple of years touring Europe while holding college in abeyance. That group formed the basis for her first album, for they performed the songs of Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, early Ella Fitzgerald, and others.
Though Dreamland was by no means a straight-ahead jazz album, Peyroux and her producers take a thoroughly modern approach to blues tunes from the 1920s and '30s. She interprets songs like Fats Waller's "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," Billie Holiday's "Gettin' Some Fun Out of Life," as well as tunes popularized by Bessie Smith, like "Reckless Blues" and "Lovesick Blues." But unlike Smith or Holiday, who weren't known as songwriters, Peyroux also recorded three of her own tunes on Dreamland, "Always a Use" (on which she accompanies herself on guitar), "Hey Sweet Man," and "Dreamland."
It took another eight years, however (the reasons for which were never very clear), for her follow-up, Careless Love, to hit shelves. This time working with producer Larry Klein on Rounder Records, Peyroux explored a more contemporary and eclectic mix of covers, including Elliott Smith's "Between the Bars," Bob Dylan's "You're Going to Make Me Lonesome," as well as older songs like Hank Williams' "Weary Blues." It was very well received and made the 2006 release of Half the Perfect World, again a combination of covers and originals, highly anticipated. The record, which featured a duet with k.d. lang, included versions of songs by Serge Gainsbourg and Tom Waits, among others.
- Richard Skelly (All Music Guide)