CAMBRIDGE - It was a dark and stormy night. OK, it wasn't, but it should have been.
For an hour and a half Saturday evening, the young jazz chanteuse Melody Gardot took her enraptured audience to a dirty, smoky, half-empty bar in the worst part of town. This was no easy feat, considering we were a standing-room-only crowd in the clean, smoke-free Regattabar in Harvard Square's Charles Hotel. But the music she and her band performed was more than a concert in a jazz club. It was theatrical. She created scenes with her songs, and became the girl-in-trouble in a black-and-white film noir from another era.
Her back story, briefly: At 19, Gardot was struck by a car while riding her bicycle. She suffered severe neurological damage and took up singing as therapy. Now 23, she has a major album, "Worrisome Heart," and is on her first major tour. Her lyrics - she writes most of her own songs - are steeped in pain and occasionally hint at her situation: "I would be lucky to find me a man who could love me the way that I am," she sang on the title track.
She started her set in haunting fashion, alone, snapping her fingers in rhythm and instructing the audience to do the same as she began singing the blues ballad "No More, My Lord." The audience hummed the refrain with her, becoming one great gospel chorus. Bassist Ken Pendergast, drummer Chuck Staab, trumpeter Patrick Hughes, and saxophonist Bryan Rogers then joined her for an arrangement of "Sweet Memory" that was markedly different - bouncier, faster - from the one she released on record just a few months ago.
Gardot has been sensitive to light and sound since her accident, so she stood beneath dim red floods and played music that was minimalist and stark. Staab used wire brushes (and, once, mallets) until the final number, a bebop workout of "Caravan" that finally allowed him to pick up sticks. Hughes employed a plunger mute when he blew, and Rogers mostly sat out.
On a few tunes each, Gardot herself played piano or acoustic guitar, sparingly but to great effect. "Baby I'm a Fool" was just her guitar and her voice, every tremolo full of beauty and heartbreak. She sat at the piano and played patient minor chords to open the bleak and mysterious "Love Me Like a River Does." Pendergast offered a few squeaks from his upright bass, Staab tapped a tom now and then, Hughes peeped in with a few muted notes, and Rogers stood off to the side. Their loping, quick-tempo rearrangement of "Over the Rainbow," with Gardot back on guitar, was a treat. Containing influences of folk, country, bossa nova, and gypsy jazz, it was wholly original, like no version we'd heard before.
Gardot's voice - even her speaking voice - is captivating, and she appears to manipulate her vocal cords with ease. Her style fits alongside like-minded lite-jazz vocalists Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux, and her voice sounds like a cross between Fiona Apple and buttered rum. But such comparisons are made merely to provide points of reference. Years from now there will be singers who remind us of Melody Gardot.
Steve Greenlee can be reached at email@example.com.