If Harold Bloom hadn’t taken it first, “The Anxiety of Influence” might not be a bad description for singer Madeleine Peyroux. Her singing has been compared to Billie Holiday’s since “Dreamland,” her 1996 debut. It’s a hard comparison to avoid: She sings in Holiday’s range, with her slurred phrasing — Peyroux rarely takes a note head-on, preferring to slide up or glide off. The unsanded tone she achieves and the way she shapes certain vowels also are uncannily similar to Holiday’s. But at Royce Hall, delivering the kickoff to UCLA Live’s Jazz Series, Peyroux sounded very much her own singer.
Her Holiday-esque qualities are still there, but now they’re heard alongside strains of Chet Baker, Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. What makes Peyroux such an enchanting singer is her absolute emotional commitment to a song.
Her one-hour set was mostly given over to songs from her new album, “Half the Perfect World” (Rounder); like the album, her perf had a much lighter tone — and more contemporary songs — than in the past. Backed by the unruffled boulevardier swing of her four-piece band, she brings a sprightly optimistic feel to “A Little Bit” and “I Hear Music” — songs giddy with new love.
Even a breakup can’t dim her spirits: She insists, “I’m Alright,” a song she confided, in one of her few comments to the aud (being on the Royce stage for the first time in a decade left her “speechless”), was autobiographical.
Her version of Tom Waits’ “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” has a wide-eyed excitement; instead of the rotgut that burns its way through Waits’ dive bar growl, Peyroux sounds like she’s been drinking martinis poured from the top shelf.
With “Blue Alert” and the new album’s title track (along with 2004’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”), she makes a strong case for being the best interpreter of Leonard Cohen’s songs today.
Opener Julien Coryell is a pleasant enough singer, but the only time his set grabbed attention was during “Autumn Leaves,” when his fleet, jazzy guitar picking reminded the aud that he’s the son of Larry Coryell. For the rest of his set, if you think singing a love song to “the best thing that ever happened to me” with a ukulele accompaniment is the most romantic thing you’d ever heard, Coryell’s your man, If you find it so overwhelmingly twee your teeth ache, you’re advised to find entertainment elsewhere.
Peyroux appears at New York’s Town Hall Oct. 25.