IF YOU think of Isabella Rossellini singing "Blue Velvet" in David Lynch's film, and then imagine the role as it might have been played by Jessica Rabbit, you can begin to understand the extraordinary appeal of Lisa Ekdahl.
The Swedish jazz vocalist has a fragile, yearning, little-girl-lost voice that suggests deep wells of emotional distress. But her cool beauty and austere poise signal that everything is under control, whatever the lovelorn lyrics of the songs might say.
Though the volume of this debut British performance rarely rose above the conversational, it fairly shouted star quality from the rooftops. It brought to mind Graham Greene reviewing the international screen debut of Ingrid Bergman and noting a highlight gleaming on her nose-tip, as if she had quite literally twinkled into stardom.
Ekdahl began with the title-song from her album, "When Did You Leave Heaven", a gloriously soppy standard she gleaned from a Johnny "Guitar" Watson LP. Intoning the words at no more than whisper-level, while the trio shuffled somnolently behind her, the spell was cast immediately. As she sang, she stood as still as a statue while, in the audience, hairs on the back of necks prickled and forkfuls of pizza suspended in mid-air.
The trio, with Nordahl on piano, Patrik Boman on double bass, and the American expatriate Ronnie Gardiner on drums, are, for a vocalist, a dream of a band. The snare-drum is brushed almost lovingly; cymbals tick with quiet exactitude; the bass alternates between satisfyingly muffled thumps and expressive glissandi, while the spare piano chords are full of space and time.
The material was almost all down-tempo standards, so familiar as to risk disdain: "But Not For Me"; "Tea For Two": "My Heart Belongs to Daddy"; "Love For Sale", etc. But Ekdahl's real gift lies not so much in the originality of her interpretations as in the way she allows the essence of the songs to come through. Like the Eileen Drewery of jazz, she's a medium.
Her voice and delivery suggest numerous antecendents: there's Chet Baker and Jimmy Scott, Blossom Dearie, Betty Boop and even Bjork; and a touch of Eartha Kitt's feline charm. But the result is entirely her own, and entirely adorable. Whether her intimate charm will work as well in larger venues remains to be seen, but Lisa Ekdahl is twinkling into stardom.
Lisa Ekdahl and the Peter Nordahl Trio continue until Saturday: Pizza Express, W1, 0171 439 8722. The album `When Did You Leave Heaven' is on RCA Victor