Queen Elizabeth Hall
24 February 2010
Swedish jazz singer Lisa Ekdahl’s performance on the South Bank last week was a rare opportunity for UK audiences to hear a talented and distinctive vocal talent. It was something of a return from the wilderness, because Ekdahl’s charming and musically inventive 1998 album of jazz standards, Back To Earth, had brought her to the attention of music fans outside Scandinavia, and while this was followed up with an appealing foray into lounge music with the romantic and languid Lisa Ekdahl Sings Salvadore Poe in 2000, Ekdahl then shifted to a lower profile for a long period until the release of her most recent album, Give Me That Slow Knowing Smile.
Like most of her English-speaking fans, I first heard Ekdahl on Back To Earth with the peerlessly energetic and innovative Peter Nordahl Trio providing her top-class backing band. Ekdahl’s singing voice is one that will likely polarise listeners: breathy, reedy and with undertones of girlishness, she sings in English with her Swedish accent intact. Yet these qualities make her voice distinctive and appealing – which is particularly valuable when interpreting songs that have been performed many times before. Her performances on Back To Earth also benefitted from her palpable enjoyment of the material – for example, her playful laugh on Now Or Never as the piano re-enters the melody is an indelible part of the track’s lasting charm. It also doesn’t hurt that Ekdahl is quite the Scandinavian beauty: blonde, elfin and immaculate.
Seeking out more of Ekdahl’s material in the years following Back To Earth, I enjoyed the songs on Sings Salvadore Poe, despite the style of music being way outside my usual musical comfort zones, and even traced one of her early Swedish-language releases, 1997’s Bortom Det Blå, which showed that her vocal talent is equally proficient in her native language as it is in English.
In person at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Ekdahl’s appears as a Nordic jazz sylph, wafting about the stage between her three talented young male band-members (not the Nordahl Trio, but still excellent). She has some of the mannerisms of the jazz diva, such as acknowledging audience applause with a theatrical palm clasped to her heart, but these are of passing interest when compared to the voice she deploys. As on record, on stage Ekdahl is at her best interpreting old standards, to which she lends an intriguing mix of inventive musical adaptations and exotic and beguiling vocal renditions. Down With Love is dispatched like a feverish electric shock, played even quicker than the bare two minutes on Back To Earth and achieving a bouncy zest that enlivens the set, while It’s Oh So Quiet, which was brought back into prominence by Bjork’s explosive cover in 1995, is a comparatively restrained affair backed with an underwater-sounding piano with doctored strings. She is not afraid to let her band soak up some attention, allowing them to perform talented solos including one dual-handed Hammond organ and cornet solo played simultaneously.
The London audience, a full house, was particularly appreciative of Ekdahl’s performance. The mixed crowd was about half Scandinavian (the barrel-chested Swede beside me snapped his fingers in time with the swingin’ numbers, jazz-style) with a smattering of Asian aficionados alongside the usual English crowd, and it’s fair to say that the audience contained a large proportion of spectacle-wearers. Two boisterous Swedish women a few aisles in front of me stood on their seats as Ekdahl returned for her encore and bellowed for some songs in Svenske, and Ekdahl happily obliged with a pretty ballad replete with plenty of Swedish rolled Rs. No idea what it was called, but it definitely made the Swedes happy!