“Music is the axe for the
frozen sea within us”

By Benedikt Fleischer

Melody_GardotThe Amer­i­can jazz queen, Melody Gar­dot, is still eager to explore the world around her, but her focus has changed and been nar­rowed down to her own coun­try. Her fourth album, Cur­ren­cy of Man, fea­tures social com­men­tary on Amer­i­can soci­ety – a com­men­tary wrapped in a bluesy ana­log sound with warm soul and gospel influ­ences and lots of horns, a com­men­tary that has nev­er seemed to have more cur­ren­cy than now.

Melody Gardot’s life reads like a tale of resilience. After being hit by a car while cycling in 2003, Gar­dot suf­fered seri­ous neu­ro­log­i­cal injuries and even had to learn to speak again until music ther­a­py helped her to cope with trau­ma, pain, and the hyper-sen­si­tiv­i­ty that still afflicts her today. She con­sid­ers her­self a cit­i­zen of the world, has been a trav­el­er by choice and a musi­cian by acci­dent, and has always incor­po­rat­ed her per­son­al expe­ri­ences into her music. Her lat­est musi­cal jour­ney, how­ev­er, doesn’t try to cap­ture the exot­ic and live­ly places that she roamed for her last album, The Absence; rather, it seems to be the dis­til­la­tion of the dusty smoke, gray con­crete, and sky-high elec­tric wires in the cities of her home coun­try. Com­ment­ing on the role of artists, Gar­dot says that it is “our job to put on our lens­es and look at the world and see how that makes sense to us and how that makes sense to oth­er peo­ple.” This is also Gardot’s approach to her lat­est album, Cur­ren­cy of Man. And espe­cial­ly lyrics-wise, the jazz singer has become less per­son­al and more obser­va­tion­al, for the first time explor­ing not only the ups and downs of love and heartache, but also social top­ics like pover­ty, eco­nom­ic crises, and racism in an expert­ly pro­duced retro-sound and vibe.

“See dat man sit­tin’ in front of the bor­der line/ he ain’t got the time to argue what’s yours and what is mine/ See dat man holdin’ his hand out in desperation/ he don’t see sal­va­tion no god and sure no nation,” Gar­dot sings in “It Gonna Come,” dis­play­ing her pow­er­ful gift to paint lyri­cal pic­tures that some­times are enhanced by the self-pro­claimed “audiophiliac’s” pas­sion for the incor­po­ra­tion of her own record­ed sound­scapes of cities, con­ver­sa­tions, and cars (a real Porsche 911 engine on “After the Rain”).

By team­ing up again with the famous Amer­i­can musi­cian, song­writer, record and sound­track pro­duc­er Lar­ry Klein – who she already worked with on her sec­ond album, My One and Only Thrill, – Gar­dot has sig­nif­i­cant­ly changed her sound again. Gone seem the days of crys­tal-clear jazz pro­duc­tion, South-Amer­i­can rhythms, and easy-lis­ten­ing strings. Instead, every­thing sounds like it’s wrapped in a warm and fuzzy coat of ana­log noise that repro­duce an authen­tic sound of the 70s – an effect the songstress from Philadel­phia achieved with the help of old school pro­duc­tion tech­niques and micro­phones to fit her lyrics and cre­ate an authen­tic retro charm. The com­bi­na­tion of sound and lyrics feel like a time warp that trans­ports seri­ous themes from crit­i­cal times in America’s past into the present where they strike a con­tem­po­rary chord. In “Preacher­man,” a song based on the sto­ry of Emmett Till – an African-Amer­i­can teenag­er who was bru­tal­ly mur­dered in 1965 after report­ed­ly flirt­ing with a white woman – those efforts cul­mi­nate with the help of a gospel choir and even dis­tort­ed guitars.

As always with Gardot’s music, the results sound sooth­ing and sub­tle to the ears most of the time. How­ev­er, this time there is a lot of brood­ing poten­tial under the sur­face, espe­cial­ly in the songstress’ voice as it oscil­lates between lament­ing and croon­ing over slick bass lines and col­or­ful brass sec­tions. These seem to form the new cen­ter­piece of her new­ly found sound, some­times near­ly over­shad­ow­ing the smooth pro­duc­tion. Songs like Same to You” or “She Don’t Know” show­case the new direc­tion of the jazz singer’s most extro­vert­ed work to date.

On the last third of the album, Gar­dot steps back sound-wise and the­mat­i­cal­ly into the more famil­iar ter­ri­to­ry of My One and Only Thrill, the album that made her the star of today’s jazz scene. And although “Morn­ing Sun” could have found its place on one of the many musi­cal out­pour­ings of Norah Jones, Gardot’s voice and expres­sions always add the nec­es­sary sub­stance and seri­ous­ness to her songs that turn the lush and sen­su­al “Once I Was Loved” into five min­utes of pure audi­to­ry ecsta­sy as if it was meant to be the salve for Gardot’s own wounds.

Inspired by Franz Kafka’s famous quote about lit­er­a­ture, Lar­ry Klein sums up Gardot’s new musi­cal jour­ney: “Music is the axe for the frozen sea with­in us.” And nev­er has an axe sound­ed more pacifying!

 

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Benedikt Fleis­ch­er stud­ied Busi­ness Psy­chol­o­gy and Cul­tur­al Stud­ies with an empha­sis on audi­tive cul­ture at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty in Lüneb­urg, Ger­many. He is singer and song­writer in the band Access : Icarus.