Julia Biel, The Vortex, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Just occasionally, one has the chance to catch an artist on the verge of a breakthrough. Those of us who watched Norah Jones on her first UK date at a small Soho club could not have known that within a few months her voice would assail us from every radio in the land. But it was clear that there was something special about her.

With the right marketing, Julia Biel could be in line for a similarly meteoric rise. Her voice shares some of the dreamy, caramel-dripped quality that made Jones's tones so instantly beguiling, and, also like Jones, she is not a straight-ahead jazz singer.

Still less so, in fact, as Biel's set of short, perfectly framed vignettes doesn't draw from the Great American Songbook. One could as well make comparisons with Björk for her occasional startling directness, or with the unvarnished edges of Tom Waits.

The line-up of her band - guitar, drums, double bass, clarinet and cello - suggests a genre-crossing desire evident in the styles the group favours. Medium latin gives way to gentle highlife, or a rumbustious swaying over a thudding bass. Idris Rahman's clarinet wails as if from the casbah, or forms a chewy texture with the cello. The guitar of Biel's co-songwriter, Johnny Philips, provides a crystal-clear contrast, a splash of fresh water over the opium haze mellowness that the band is so adept at creating.

Biel's voice is strong, with a density of tone that makes it arresting. On higher registers, her sound is purer but not overly refined. If no number moves terribly fast, that seems to be because her voice issues forth like a thick curl of smoke; it cannot be rushed.

Nor would the listener desire the metronome to be wound tighter. This is music to wash over and calm an audience, to send them into a trance; music that demands a hush descend over a packed room in east London, as it did at the Vortex during her performance.

Jazz is one of the elements that contributes to Biel's compelling sound, but it does not define it, which means that she has the capability to reach far beyond a jazz audience.

If it seems odd for a jazz critic to be praising her for this, it is because the appearance of a truly individual artist with a full bag of distinctive, convincing songs is always to be welcomed, whatever the genre.

Her contribution to a Nokia commercial may soon set Julia Biel on the road to the kind of success she deserves.