Cécile McLorin Salvant debuts as an iconic jazz singer in ‘WomanChild’
“And though Cécile McLorin Salvant will surely do different things in the future, she is already a singer who needs to be reckoned with. Even more, she is a singer to be enjoyed. Or put another way, jazz may be a hundred years old, more or less, but it wears those years lightly when you’re listening to these tracks.” — Ted Gioia, author of “The History Of Jazz, “Delta Blues,” and “The Jazz Standards: A Guide To The Repertoire”
There’s a reason Cécile McLorin Salvant, 27, won the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition — as the youngest finalist ever. It’s all over her debut album, the Grammy-nominated, May 13, 2013 Mack Avenue Records release, WomanChild.
She’s different, ancient, playful, powerful, depthless, frighteningly unpredictable, and can sing her pants off. Just like Billie Holiday in her day.
A Billie Holiday only comes around once in a blue moon. This is that moon.
While every other aspiring female jazz vocalist practiced on the well-worn standards everybody else has done to death, McLorin Salvant went a different path. Her mother is French and her father, Haitian. She was born in Miami, speaking French as her native language before English, raised on classical music then jazz, plunking down at the piano by five and hitting those pipes in the Miami Choral Society by eight. Any old college wouldn’t do. She attended Aix-en-Provence in France, studying baroque vocals and classical music, then jazz.
Not just any kind of jazz. Under the tutelage of Jean-François Bonnel, McLorin Salvant delved way back beyond the post-WWII golden era a lot of jazz artists get stuck in. McLorin Salvant found beauty in Sarah Vaughan, Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Betty Carter, sure; but, she also dug deeper to the obscure jazz, folk, and blues from the 1910s.
In WomanChild, McLorin Salvant delves into three centuries of American music, some vaguely familiar, others completely foreign.
What she does with the 19th century folk song, “John Henry,” is nothing short of transformative. She puts in a spirited, funky swing to the slow-motion dirge with her borderline bass vocals and the slanted off-beats of bass and drums (Rodney Whitaker and Herlin Riley).
The vocal and instrumental arrangement of “Le Front Caché Sur Tes Genoux” fairly overflows in a new flowery language, full-bodied piano by Aaron Diehl, swirling, frothy waves of percussive whispers, and that voice, taking on another persona, lighter, romantic, faraway. McLorin Salvant updated Haitian author Ida Salomon Faubert’s 20th century poem with a winning 21st century waltz.
McLorin Salvant has this rare ability of taking any song and transforming it as something she herself birthed, a living, breathing being so completely original and unique as to leave listeners wondering where she came from. It’s probably what audiences felt back when Lady Day took the stage and made time still with a voice nobody’s ever heard before. And even better, made them feel her pain through every excruciatingly rendered note.
McLorin Salvant’s voice possesses such range, control, confidence, and deep understanding, it’s astounding to hear what she can do with solos and scats.
New York Times critic Stephen Holden best described that voice: “…perfect pitch and enunciation, a playful sense of humor, a rich and varied tonal palette, a supple sense of swing, exquisite taste in songs and phrasing, and a deep connection to lyrics.”
It’s that deep connection to the lyrics at so young an age that amazes so many.
Whether it’s bemoaning the loss of a lover to another woman in “St. Louis Gal,” sardonically narrating a life full of “clouds and rain” in the stand-out hit, “Nobody,” or ripping into the nasty business of falling in passionate love with “You Bring Out The Savage In Me,” McLorin Salvant does that and so much more. She becomes the essence of the song’s intent, yet remains indelibly herself in a breathtaking array of shades, tones, expressions, and moods.
Of all the carefully, hand-picked songs on this album, Bert Williams/Alex Rogers’ rollicking, belting 1905-feel of a number, “Nobody,” probably showcases McLorin Salvant’s personality best. It’s at once dramatic, wry, and incredibly theatrical. She gets to really show off her acting through her expressive, malleable pipes, often through the phrasing of just one word — the song title. Nobody can put more meaning, stretch, twist, and tang into one word than her. “When winter comes with snow and sleet, and me with hunger and cold feet, who says, ‘Here’s 25 cents go on get something to eat?’ Nooooooooo-body.” Yes.
The 1934 pop song “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” by Harry M. Woods becomes a fabulous catch and go, hide and seek game of bass and the most sensual, supernatural vocal scatting around, venturing into the wordlessly introspective subconscious. “And all you can say is… Ooooh…” She swallows each little syllable of “Ooooh” like it’s her last meal, then hits the highest of highs with a final, orgasmic note. Pianist Aaron Diehl endows this song with a resplendent wonder, surrounding McLorin Salvant with a cloudy, airy cushion upon which to fall and slow dance vocally. The frenetic, foamy bass threads by Rodney Whitaker enrich the song with an undulating heat, and give the instrument a rebirth.
Cécile McLorin Salvant is the real deal. Any singer can sing the notes as written. She goes beyond the notes to make you feel what she’s feeling.