City Recital Hall, October 31
Cecile McLorin Salvant makes us wish we were great singers, too. Even as she transports us with vocal artistry of the highest calibre, the fun factor is contagious, deployed with all the guilelessness of playing in a sandpit. Yet intertwined with the playfulness is the ability to touch people with complex and sometimes conflicting emotions.
You have little sense of the massive commitment to craft underpinning her difficult art. You merely sense her pleasure in the act of making music with all the openness of a genuine improviser; her delight in a voice that stretches in any direction she wishes to go.
Salvant expands the definition being a jazz singer. Like a butterfly visiting different flowers, she alights upon wildly diverse songs, without the eclecticism feeling in the least laboured. She flitted from One Step Ahead (popularised by Aretha Franklin) to Bessie Smith’s Haunted House Blues (it being Halloween) to Barbara Song from Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, to a Burt Bacharach medley and Rodgers and Hart’s I Didn’t Know What Time It Was. As if that weren’t diverse enough, she also visited Dame Iseut, a 12th-century female troubadour song sung in the Occitan language of southern France, a madcap The Trolley Song and even Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. The wonder was not just the breadth, but how fresh-minted everything seemed.
With no set list, her band – exceptional pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Kyle Pool – had to be on its toes. While some material had been rehearsed until it gleamed, other songs (like the Bacharachs) were spontaneous choices and, no doubt, others still are radically reinterpreted each night. The trio matched her playfulness, while exercising a restraint that ensured she effortlessly commanded the foreground.
Salvant further sets herself apart by being an exceptional songwriter, exemplified by Moon Song (and as can be heard on her current Melusine album, with which she only flirted here). Throughout you hear hints of her great jazz-singer predecessors, but she’s travelled far beyond being a copyist. She’s travelled back to her inner child.