Female jazz vocalists are once again in the limelight, thanks largely to the popularity of the accomplished and very marketable Diana Krall. I can't quite see the more diffident and downbeat Lauvergnac getting the same, superstar treatment but this, her first solo album, should get her noticed. What may look like yet another collection of standards sung by yet another pretty white woman turns out to be something quite distinctive. Lauvergnac is no mere copyist. This is a laid-back but challenging set of highly personal interpretations. Though her singular delivery might actually alienate as many as it captivates, there is evidence enough here of the coming-of-age of an already significant figure on the European jazz circuit.
Lauvergnac sings some very lush songs in a smoky and almost exasperatingly slow style. The backing is minimalist -- rarely consisting of more than one instrument. This mix of the austere and the sensuous is at the heart of the complete sound and may prove a little too disturbing for mass consumption. Equally it can be said to mark Lauvergnac out from the crowd. The "European" intonation (and a slight problem with the letter R) will prove equally divisive. For my money, there are two tracks here that should be on every late-night jazz DJ's playlist and one that should be avoided by some considerable distance. The remainder are persuasive, if somewhat introspective readings, of well chosen material, which emphasise the poignancy and sense of longing implicit in each melody and set of lyrics. The cumulative effect is a little on the depressing side, but if the art of song is in the communication of mood, then Lauvergnac is a true artist.
With a French-sounding name, Italian birthplace and a Swiss record label, Lauvergnac seems to embody the trans-national nature of modern jazz.If you add that to the fact that the album was recorded in Brooklyn, Munich and Vienna and that her tutors have, impressively, included Andy Bey and Sheila Jordan -- we get the sense of a truly global citizen. Yet the sensibility and the intonation remains specifically "continental". Ute Lemper, Juliette Greco and the ghosts of unnamed cabaret chanteuses, perhaps unwittingly, haunt this record. It is undeniably jazz but, though the songs belong entirely to the New World, the Modernism on display seems to evoke the capital cities of the Old. This is not to imply an abstract intellectualism, merely to point out that Lauvergnac is no "mimic" and brings to the record a persona that does not care to hide its geographical and cultural origins.
If people know about Lauvergnac it is probably for her work within Ellingtonia for the Vienna Art Orchestra. The interest continues here with "Don't You Know I Care" and "Day Dream", two excellent and under-performed Ellington/Strayhorn compositions, serving as prologue and epilogue to the set. These show up the qualities described above and give a fair indication of the singer's modus operandi. The first is as lugubrious a rendition as exists and boasts some cultured but sparse piano accompaniment from Andy Bey. The latter features a trio of bass, drums and sax but is so personal and private that the applause at the end, it is the one live cut,seems a shocking intrusion. The tempo on both is snail-paced and each phrase is delivered with a sense of profundity and deep sadness. Bleak yet strangely poetic,they will not please certain of Ellington's admirers but less Leninist guardians of the correct line will recognise their merits.
In the middle of the set stand the two most complete performances, both decidedly idiosyncratic but both equally memorable. "I Fall in Love Too Easily/The Meaning of the Blues", performed as one seamless piece, is a triumph. Both items have been "done to death" but because of Lauvergnac's approach are here refreshed and emotionally enriched. John Di Martino (piano) and Boris Koslov (bass) provide discreet counterpoint to as convincing an expression of a broken heart as popular song can provide. Equally expressive is "Corcovado", one of Jobim's most beautiful songs. The smooth, nostalgic longing of most versions is sacrificed bravely in favour of a more angst-ridden but still elegant exercise, complemented by some disturbing flute patterns and nothing else. Stark but not at all cold.
Almost as adeptly handled are Charlie Haden's "First Song" and the one self-penned tune "Close Your Eyes", although they are perhaps rather too reserved even for this session's requirements. Only on "Spring is Here" do her technique and her tactics let her down, producing a toneless mess. Elsewhere the quiet, self-reflexive and generally melancholy atmosphere is maintained seamlessly. Not to be recommended as pre-club or party fare, but a real achievement in the sustained exploration of particular emotions and states of mind.
Her accent and phrasing might be an obstacle. However you will find that out in seconds. If you persevere (and I had forgotten how often the noun "Spring" crops up in the song canon) then this album will make much that passes as jazz vocals these days seem very lightweight. And though I am suspicious of the spate of blonde singers peering at me from the record racks of late -- there must be some very pissed off black, jazz women looking on -- there can be no doubting that Anna Lauvergnac has something individual and compelling to bring to the genre. It would have been interesting to hear her tackling more upbeat rhythms (or sentiments,for that matter) but future projects, which are now sure to follow, will provide room for that. In the area of the meditative ballad she has already proved herself to be an expert.