Selling the Melody

Melody Gardot

From the lips of Melody Gardot -- heard in her swinging Cole Porter for an automobile -- there's another tentacle of jazz pushing forward, finding its way into our ears.

Melody Gardot

Worrisome Heart

Label: Verve
UK Release Date: 2008-02-18
US Release Date: 2008-02-26

This essay was supposed to be about the use of jazz in television commercials, but it turns out it's about a single commercial and the artist who makes the commercial work.

As a jazz nut, I think I'm hearing the music in commercials all the time. And it does crop up now and again: sometimes it's a classic track, but more often it will be a classic song recently recorded by a younger or even unknown artist. The notion I had, which I think is fair enough, is that advertisers today use jazz to signify class or fanciness, elegance or refinement.

Cole Porter Sells Horsepower

The most prominent commercial to feature jazz on the air these days is for the new Chevy Malibu. This ad has been running since early in 2008, and football fans will have seen it dozens of times in recent weekends -- it features a man carving a new car out of a rectangle of clay. The accompanying music, aptly enough, is Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin". The singer is Melody Gardot.

My thesis, surely, is born out here. A cool looking artist guy is at work -- he caresses a huge block of clay and lines up his sights lovingly. The voiceover reminds people that Chevy makes "the most dependable, longest-lasting trucks on the road", but this Malibu is "built to last, built to love". In the final shot, a man in a dark suit admires it inside its light-filled futuristic pavilion. This thing is no truck -- it's Michaelangelo's David with side-impact airbags.

The song is crucial to the ad: "I've got you under my skin / I've got you deep in the heart of me / So deep in heart, you're really a part of me / I've got you under my skin." A Chevy Malibu was beating inside that clay's heart from the start, and you can love its elegant lines.

Sixteen Bars to Fame

The star of the commercial, however, is neither the car nor Mr. Cole Porter. It is Gardot, a 24 year-old singer. Those 16 bars of classic melody are trusted to her voice.

A little poking around on the Internet quickly reveals that people love the ad and want to know, desperately, "Who is that singer?" She sounds unabashedly like a singer from another era, accompanied only by pulsing, walking acoustic bass, brushed drums, and a gently swinging jazz guitar. There is the lemon tartness of Billie Holiday but also the smooth ease of early Ella Fitzgerald.

(Note: It turns out there is a minor industry of websites devoted to chasing down the performers on advertisements. Crazy. When the music in these ads is described as being "jazz", the actual music typically turns out to be some kind of synth-based instrumental music featuring a muted trumpet in high-Miles-rip-off mode. Less jazz than a kind of ADHD fusion.)

On Ms. Gardot's website she tells the story of how she got the work on this ad, which she describes as "something cool and unusual", but also ironic because "I don't actually own a television or a car". In comments on her website, fans pretty much beg her to release a full version of the song, but more than likely one does not exist -- it's a 30-second ad, and Gardot only sings those first 16 bars.

Not Really a Jazz Singer?

The intriguing thing about Gardot singing a jazz standard on TV is this: she is not really a jazz singer. Her only full-length album came out in 2006, titled Worrisome Heart. It is a beautifully realized folk/pop/jazz creation -- something that inevitably will be compared to Norah Jones' work. But Gardot was taught classical piano as a kid and then, she said in an NPR interview, she started "incorporating blues notes by instinct". The teacher was wise enough to introduce her to Ellington, but digging some Duke doesn't make you a jazz player.

What she has, like a sheer gift perhaps, is a voice of distinction. She is rather young, and her voice does not eschew its youthful purity -- there is little showy vibrato and folk/rock directness. But there is also a burgundy tone and a hip swing to the way phrases are molded. It is the tone of a '50s jazz siren married to the confessional intimacy of an indie-folk queen like Feist.

Gardot and the musicians who have worked with her understand the value of this voice. On the Malibu commercial, she was hired by a commercial music company in New York called Yessian, who smartly had her go straight at a jazz standard backed only by a trio. The producers of Worrisome Heart worked with Gardot's original songs, but they gave them both an acoustic sheen and a jazz tinge: upright bass, vintage organ or Wurlitzer piano, violin, finger-picked acoustic guitar, drums frequently played with brushes, muted trumpet or keening saxophone. It's some variant of indie-pop-folk, to be sure, but the combination of that whiskey-and-water voice with dashes of swing feeling makes a strong case that Gardot is, in fact, part of the new wave of jazz singing.

A Unique Story Too

The suggestion of jazz in her album is accentuated if you know Gardot's strange story. At 19, she was hit by an SUV while riding her bike and suffering profound injury -- including short-term memory loss, pelvic fractures, neuralgic and muscle pain, and intense sensitivity to light and sound. A doctor concerned with her head injury suggested she try "music therapy" to repair neural pathways, and she started writing tunes, singing, playing guitar.... Before the accident, she wasn't particularly serious about music.

Worrisome Heart was released independently at first, and championed by Philadelphia's singular public radio station, WXPN. WXPN is not a jazz station; indeed it plays little jazz. (Side note: Does anyone know why there are not more public, non-commercial stations that play interesting rock, folk, and pop music rather than just jazz or classical? WXPN is a compelling reason to live near Philadelphia.) Nevertheless, jazz labels are expanding boundaries these days. And so, Verve -- one of jazz's few remaining major labels -- reissued the disc in late February of this year.

The question: Is it merely coincidence that Gardot's Chevy Malibu TV ad premiered during the February 10, 2008 Grammy Awards broadcast?

The Music Itself

Gardot is wise enough and modest enough not to label herself a jazz singer. "Jazz" is no path to riches, of course, but she properly sees jazz as more of a flavor than a main ingredient in her music. Her original tunes on Worrisome Heart have a sensuous "late night" feeling, and she has a gift for blues insinuation or lively melody on different tunes.

"All That I Need Is Love" is very nearly a straight swinger, the kind of thing that Blossom Dearie might have done 40 years ago. More often, Gardot trades in a loping kind of soul with a generous dose of jazz phrasing ("Worrisome Heart") or a pleasing sort of folk-pop that is laced with wordless scatting as part of the ensemble ("Gone"). Like Norah Jones, Gardot can seem to verge on country music in a few places, as she phrases with a minor twang, and the band is not afraid to trade in acoustic slide guitar ("Sweet Memory") common to American roots music.

The harder you listen to Worrisome Heart, the more you realize what a deft trick Gardot has achieved. The tune with the strongest jazz credentials is probably "Quiet Fire", which arrays horns, a swinging lope, scatting, and fine swing in the pursuit of a modern audience. But even here, the sense of discovery that jazz brings to the table is limited. Gardot channels the loose phrasing of jazz in both her writing and her performance, but the record sounds like a simulacrum of jazz style rather than like any kind of genuine risk.

I know that sounds like criticism, but I don't mean to disparage. Rather, Gardot has arguably found a way to pull jazz into today's indie-pop sensibility. I think the achievement is lovely -- the inverse of Cassandra Wilson's trick in drawing pop styles into her expanding jazz approach. Just as lovely maybe. How wonderful will it be if listeners hear jazz in Gardot's work, bringing their new ears to the great music?

A New Generation Comes to the Music

When Gardot writes about her performance of "I've Got You Under My Skin" on the Chevy Malibu commercial, she notes: "I fell in love with this song when I heard Bono do the duet with Sinatra." Naturally. Gardot's generation not only did not listen to Sinatra directly, but she probably doesn't even have parents who would be playing Sinatra albums. Her entrée to Sinatra was through a veteran rock singer's stylized dalliance with the master.

But that is cool. Bono had the intelligence to respect one of his elders, and Sinatra was -- however begrudgingly or calculatedly -- willing to open up to the singer's he influenced. Now that record, released in 1993, is paying it forward with an artist of a younger generation still. The great songs, the brilliant composers, the urgent pulse of swing -- they find their way into the future one way or another.

In Gardot -- and in her swinging Cole Porter for an automobile -- there's another tentacle of jazz pushing forward and finding ears. Who is that singing in the car ad? What is that song? Some young teenager just might be Googling the name "Melody Gardot" -- and then Porter and Sinatra -- as we speak.

And another young star starts to feel the pulse.





PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.


Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.


Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.