Three 1/2 Stars
The young jazz-pop singer Melody Gardot has effortlessly achieved a sound and presence that countless other singers would love to approach. At 27, Gardot seems to have risen fully formed out of influences that include Nina Simone, Rickie Lee Jones, Anita O'Day and Edith Piaf. Her smart, sophisticated image suggests a post-modern French chanteuse, but Gardot hails from Philadelphia by way of New Jersey.
As a 19-year-old fashion and art student in Philadelphia, Gardot was left seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver while she was bicycling. In her yearlong rehabilitation, she took up guitar because she couldn't play piano. The songs she wrote while recovering became a celebrated EP and eventually led to Gardot's signing with a major label.
The near-death experience also gave her an "old soul" sensibilty that permeates her music.
Gardot's newest record, a sultry noir romance called "The Absence," builds on the worldwide success of 2010's "My One and Only Thrill." Her original songs like "If I Tell You I Love You" and "Goodbye" sound like obscure older classics.
The revelatory "My One and Only Thrill" was produced by Larry Klein and arranged and conducted by Vince Mendoza, the pair responsible for Joni Mitchell's beautiful and underrated "Travelogue" album. Gardot's songs, often about love or relationships, are sad, celebratory and defiant almost simultaneously.
The subtle arrangements on "The Absence" come from producer Heitor Pereira, who has created a spare, intimate setting that accentuates Gardot's soft, smoky voice. Pereira is a Brazilian guitarist, composer and producer now based in New York. He and Gardot co-wrote the songs "Se Voce Me Ama" and "Amalia," and Pereira wrote all the orchestral arrangements on the record.
Before writing songs for "The Absence" Gardot traveled extensively. The samba "Lisboa" comes from her time in Portugal, while "Yemanja" and "Mira" have a world-music feel.
She takes her time with jazz ballads like "Goodbye" and "So We Meet Again My Heartache" as if she's studied the great Shirley Horn, but what is best about Gardot is how personal and musically organic her performances are.
On all her recordings, Gardot shows how hypnotically engaging and successful an artist can be without cheesy seductive poses and also while keeping her clothes on (yes, Diana Krall, I'm talking to you).
While there isn't a perfectly exquisite song like "Lover Undercover" from her last album, "The Absence" doesn't disappoint, and the gorgeous "My Heart Won't Have It Any Other Way" will likely become a standard itself soon enough.
Gardot performs Thursday at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco and Friday at the Monterey Jazz Festival.