Gwyneth Herbert, 606 Club, London

By Chris Mugan
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The Independent Culture

A basement supper club in Chelsea brings to mind jazz's golden age, until tonight's turn plays samples of the Star Wars droid R2-D2 through her mike, and honks an old-style car horn.

For Gwyneth Herbert is neither straightforward jazz vocalist nor po-faced singer-songwriter. And while you can still fall between the cracks amid today's rampant cross-genre fusion, she clearly enjoys the freedom she's sacrificed so much for.

Herbert came to fame when snapped up by Universal Jazz, desperate for a UK answer to Norah Jones. They saw her as a purveyor of safe standards, and seemed right on Bittersweet and Blue. But Herbert had her own agenda. She jumped ship to record an album of self-penned material, Between Me and the Wardrobe, to sell at gigs, only to have it picked up by Blue Note, making her the influential label's first British artist in decades.

For this intimate set, she only performs with double bass and acoustic guitar, apart from sound effects, which reflects the current album's minimal, if occasionally quirky, nature.

With unfussy, versatile arrangements, the backing duo provide sensitive accompaniments for her clear delivery, applied with a purity few jazz artists bother to match. Over bare-bones sketches of tune, Herbert fleshes out themes with bewitching control, especially when she raises the intensity on the chorus to "The Morning After". At such times, the 26-year-old from Surrey brings to mind Joplin rather than Jones.

New material comes across as more carefree, and the vibrant "Jane into a Beauty Queen" sees Herbert take on Amy Winehouse's neoclassicist strategy in her own vivacious style. She is less sure on covers, injecting too much ornamentation into what ought to have been a gripping take on Portishead's "Glory Box". The double-bass player Tom Herbert plays a stilted solo, at odds with the snap of his usual emphatic lines, alongside guitarist Al Cherry's welcome bluesy touch.

Herbert recovers for a beguiling finale, singing "Midnight Oil" without amplification as she wanders the tables. Proof that you don't need soap-opera antics to create a sense of drama.

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