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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Selling the Melody

Melody Gardot
Worrisome Heart

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.