Singer Madeleine Peyroux performs at Strathmore. (Handout photo )
With a timbre suggestive of Billie Holiday and an intimate style of phrasing that needs only the subtlest twist of a syllable to hook a listener, Madeleine Peyroux has cleared a distinctive path in today's jazz world.
That path does not include a lot of self-promotion.
The Georgia-born singer, songwriter and guitarist has a reputation for being on the reclusive side. There have been periods when she simply dropped out of sight (during one such period about a decade ago, she did some busking in Paris).
That behavior, combined with her often low-key, deeply introspective music-making, makes Peyroux — who performs Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore — one of the more intriguingly elusive performers around.
But, in a recent conversation, she sounded thoroughly approachable and even lighthearted. Is this the sign of a more upbeat, more extroverted Peyroux?
"I am growing and growing up," she said, "or, rather, growing toward the sun, like plants do. I am just happy to be alive and to have maturity. And I probably will continue that way."
"It's the right way to be," Peyroux added.
Now in her mid-30s, the artist has been developing her musical scope in recent years. Although a longtime songwriter, she first came to attention by covering pieces by the likes of Patsy Cline, Leonard Cohen, Edith Piaf, Bessie Smith and Hank Williams. In 2009, though, she made a departure with the album "Bare Bones," which featured her own songs.
Peyroux's latest recording, "Standing on the Rooftop," released in June, keeps the focus squarely on original material. She had a hand in writing or co-writing all but a couple of the tracks (a haunting cover of The Beatles' "Martha My Dear" is one of exceptions).
"Having the freedom and space to write the songs, that was a great feeling," she said. "It's liberating being able to look at a blank page. But I've been singing master songwriters' songs for a long time. I was stunned, or paralyzed, by the fact that they have done everything that can be done."
Not too paralyzed, in the end.
Peyroux displays an impressive range of creativity on the album. The title track, for example, is fueled by reiterative chords that shift slowly, in almost minimalist fashion, and create an extended structure.
"'Standing on the Roof' became a song that could go into a longer form, could take a while to unfold," said Peyroux, who may have picked up touch of minimalism in the song from one of that genre's leading figures.
"I discovered Steve Reich a couple years ago and was fascinated by him," she said. "I have been aware of minimalism, in bits and pieces. Philip Glass I heard a lot. But I feel the more I listen to this kind of music, the less I understand."
The album's producer was Craig Street, who has done notable work with k.d. lang and Norah Jones. Peyroux's songwriting collaborators included Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman.
"The most daunting thing, perhaps, was being surrounded by such geniuses in every camp — an amazing team of musicians," Peyroux said.
Whatever she sings, she keeps one goal in mind.
"I want to connect on a very human level with the audience," she said. "In the 21st century, we are still evolving as human beings. We have to continue growing. As long as there is something visceral and accessible in what we're doing, that's all we need to get to the next level. I'd like to continue to do that. I don't want to lose sight of that."
However soft the volume or subtle the inflections, Peyroux's singing achieves a visceral quality. It's a trait she picked up from her early jazz idols.
"To me, when I listen to Billie Holiday, I hear, 'I've been beaten and trod down, but I don't take no [expletive] off of anybody.' Same for Bessie Smith," Peyroux said. "There were very few women who could go toe-to-toe and duke it out with the guys in that particular culture, which was so masculine and paternalistic."
The defiant side of Holiday and Smith left a mark on Peyroux.
"That's an important thing for me," she said. "You admit your fallibility and weaknesses, and at the same time you can be completely infallible, too strong, basically, to fail. We are all aspiring to find the central identity that will free us from feeling oppressed."
If you go
Madeleine Peyroux (Nellie McKay is the opener) will perform at 8 p.m. Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $35 to $58. Call 301-581-5100 or go to strathmore.org.