It’s practically impossible for any singer to tackle “The Man That Got Away” without the distracting shade of Judy Garland lurking on the edge of the spotlight. But when Jessie Buckley stepped up to the mic at London’s Pizza on the Park on Saturday, nobody was interested in the ghost of an old legend. Why would you be, when such a vibrant living talent materialises in front of your eyes?
If it wasn’t for the evidence of her slender frame and a pristine voice that has more than a hint of Doris Day at her youthful best, it would be hard to believe that Buckley is only 20. She’s already been runner-up in the BBC’s find-a-Nancy mission, I’d Do Anything (and now we see why Andrew Lloyd Webber could barely contain his exasperation when the public vote imposed a different leading lady on his production). And last year, she achieved the near-impossible feat of making shrill, shallow Anne Egerman a halfway sympathetic and complex character in Trevor Nunn’s revival of A Little Night Music.
Hushing a busy room in a West End eatery on a Saturday night, and holding the audience’s attention through two sophisticated sets of standards is a tall order for the most experienced, battle-hardened singer. But from the first note, it’s clear that Buckley has the necessary tools – not just the pipes and an appealing, unfussy presentation but crucially in this environment, where the diners tend to know their music, an astonishingly mature flair for jazz.She rips up “Blue Skies”, “Birth of the Blues”, “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, “Love Me or Leave Me” and “Take the A Train”, telling us what a privilege it is to be able to sing such great lyrics. Her phrasing is instinctive, adventurous and occasionally audacious – she’ll try anything , and usually pull it off. And her joy at unleashing this skill, recently discovered and relatively unexplored, free from the constraints of a musical theatre performance, is palpable.
Buckley’s pianist Joe Thompson tells us that he and double bassist Rob Rickenberg don’t care much for singers as a rule. They’re too troublesome and self-regarding. But Jessie, he says simply, has taught them both so much; this is praise indeed from a musician of Thompson’s calibre. The rapport between the three of them strikes sparks – and even if there is the odd moment when discipline dissolves into banter, it is clear that the performance is rooted in complete, mutual respect for each other’s musicality.
But it’s the ballads that linger longest as the memory of the evening fades. “The Man That Got Away” of course, stripped of all that Garland vibrato but losing nothing in the telling of the story – or the conviction that the singer is reliving it. When Buckley sings an intimately wistful “The Way You Look Tonight”, you feel you’re eavesdropping on her innermost thoughts. And when she gazes into the distance on “More Than You Know” she is, whether she knows it or not, joining the ranks of the finest torch-singers who trace their lineage back to the great Broadway star Helen Morgan.
Jessie Buckley is one of the last performers to grace the stage at Pizza on the Park. The room is to close in the summer, depriving London of a venue steeped in showbusiness history. Never mind the overpriced food and the so-so wine list that have been part of its idiosyncratic charm over the years – just catch a rising star in her element.
However, she will launch a new season of cabaret – Live at the Pheasantry – at The Pheasantry in London’s Kings Road on 13th June. She also plays the Delfont Room on 31st July and appears at The Stables near Milton Keynes on 20th August.