If You Like Billie Holiday, Try Madeleine Peyroux

Eva Hambach/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Madeleine Peyroux singing at the Howard Theater in Washington last year, accompanied by George Duke.

<nyt_byline>VAL HALLER

Published: March 20, 2013 Comment
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Each week, Val Haller, a music-obsessed baby boomer and the founder of the Web site Valslist.com, matches tracks from her generation to that of her 20-something sons’ generation.

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The dinner party. The guest list: check. Invitations: check. Menu: check. Bar stocked: check. Music: uh …

Music often causes last-minute panic when entertaining. I know this because I’m usually on the receiving end of frantic calls from friends asking to borrow my iPod with dinner-party playlists. This week’s paired artists are always welcome guests at my dinner parties. Their silken blend of jazz and vocals provides a smooth undercurrent on which conversation can ride. Whom do you invite to your dinner party?


Video by ispica77

Billie Holiday – The Very Thought of You




Born Eleanor Fagan in 1915, Billie Holiday had a life of extraordinary contrasts. On one hand: she grew up in brutal poverty, surviving rape and racial cruelty. She was a prostitute, became a drug addict, battled poor health. On the other, she was one of the great celebrities of her time, an extraordinary talent, who collaborated with Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Her voice was as distinctive as the white gardenia she wore in her hair. Her big breakthrough came at age 20 when the jazz writer/producer John Hammond heard that voice. She was filling in for a better-known performer. He loved her slower tempo, husky blues vocals, her different rhythm. The saxophonist Lester Young and Holiday created some of the greatest jazz recordings of all time. She called him Prez; he called her Lady Day. As her music career took off, her emotional and physical health deteriorated. She was only 44 when she died. In the 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues,” Diana Ross stars as Holiday. Rock band U2’s song “Angel of Harlem” is a tribute to Holiday. But really, the best way to get close to Holiday is to listen to her.


Video by MadeleinePeyrouxVEVO

Madeleine Peyroux – Changing All Those Changes


Video by Nando Moraes

Madeleine Peyroux – Don’t Wait Too Long (Live in Los Angeles 2009)




When I first heard Madeleine Peyroux I couldn’t help thinking of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Edith Piaf. I was impressed that a contemporary singer was confident enough to venture into such lofty territory. Loved it. Her music is the perfect dinner party fare — and I’m not talking Muzak, I’m talking elegance. It’s relaxed and subtle enough to let conversation rule, yet so fine your guests will take note. On an outing last week I walked into an antiques shop with classical music playing in the background; it fit perfectly. Later that day we shopped some vintage/consignment shops, and Billie Holiday and, yes, Madeleine Peyroux were playing in the background. Indeed, Nate Chinen in The Times described Peyroux’s voice as “a small, distinctive thing with all the weathered charm of a flea-market antique.”

Growing up, Ms. Peyroux lived in Athens, Ga., Southern California, Brooklyn, and at 13 moved to Paris with her mother. By 15, she was singing in the streets. Her first album, “Dreamland” (1996), and second album, “Careless Love” (2004) (one of my favorites) — are collections of cover songs by music greats like Patsy Cline, Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Piaf. Her fourth solo album, “Bare Bones” (2009), features only works she composed.

Ms. Peyroux sings in a soft, husky voice, with minimal backup orchestration. Her album “The Blue Room,” released last week, has a new crossover sound touching on country and pop. Discussing the album, Charles Gans of The Associated Press writes that she “returns as a masterful interpreter of classic songs.” He continues: “Half the 10 tunes — including ‘Born to Lose,’ ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ — are from Ray Charles’s two 1962 albums. But Peyroux’s rich tone, emotional depth and expressive story telling … seem more evocative of Patsy Cline’s crossover country pop recordings from the same era.” Ms. Peyroux keeps a low profile and does little publicity. “The only thing that matters is the song,” she says. And she sings such lovely songs, so well.

She appears this week at the Tarrytown Music Hall in Westchester County (March 20); and Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Allen Room, (March 22 and 23).

Previous Music Matches can be found here.

Booming: Living Through the Middle Ages offers news and commentary about baby boomers, anchored by Michael Winerip. You can follow Booming via RSS here or visitnytimes.com/booming. You can reach us by e-mail at booming@nytimes.com.






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