Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window

Album of the Week, July 13, 2024

Cécile McLorin Salvant was on a roll. She had just picked up her second Grammy award for best jazz vocal album for Dreams and Daggers. No less a luminary than Wynton Marsalis had tapped her to tour with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, saying, “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.” You’d be forgiven for thinking that she would rest on her laurels, or at least continue in the same path that had brought her to this point of success.

But being Cécile McLorin Salvant, this must have looked like a good time to start to make some changes. She began booking and playing dates without her longtime trio (Aaron Diehl on piano, Lawrence Leathers on drums, Paul Sikivie on bass)—instead, she and Sullivan Fortner appeared as a duo.

Fortner’s arrangements, orchestral in imagination and execution, meant that her musical horizons were not constrained; on the contrary, her new sound was freer and more wide ranging, borrowing from cabaret and stage even as she reached beyond the Great American Songbook for material. So Stevie Wonder’s “Visions” becomes something like lieder, her vocals alternately fierce and tender as Fortner’s piano sounds echoes of Brahms and Schubert, while “One Step Ahead” resonates with the sound of the R&B club with Fortner’s Hammond B3 organ, swinging against the merry waltz of the piano. We get a scampering, ominous undercurrent in Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’s “By Myself” that turns into a solo that sounds like both parts of Bill Evans improvising in overdubs on Conversations With Myself. And Richard Rodgers’ 1962 song “The Sweetest Sounds” (from No Strings) has healthy dollops of boogie-woogie and Brahms forming a substantial solo number, introduced by Salvant’s wistful introductory reading of the tune.

This isn’t to say that the album is all Fortner, all the time. Indeed, Buddy Johnson’s “Ever Since the One I Love’s Been Gone” provides a vehicle for Cécile’s voice to spin a dark tale of sorrow and regret with subdued accompaniment in a live performance from the Village Vanguard, while the original “À Clef” hypnotizes with Salvant’s chanson performance, balanced with a touch of Nadia Boulanger in the accompaniment. Dori Caymmi’s “Obsession” is a breathtaking miniature of desire. And Dorothy Wayne and Ray Rusch’s “Wild Is Love” balances a nonchalant vocal delivery against the sound of an accompaniment that seems at imminent risk of tumbling down the stairs.

The jaunty organ of “J’Ai L’Cafard,” a 1930 French song by Louis Daspax and Jean Eugene Charles Eblinger, belies the darkness in Salvant’s performance of the desperate tale of a drug addict, a darkness that appears only in the final snarl of the chorus. For my ear, Salvant’s live reading of “Somewhere” could use a little of that snarl; for my taste, there’s a little too much portamento and rubato in her reading. But there are pleasures aplenty in Sullivan’s accompaniment, which finds an Ornette Coleman-like intensity in the long solo, and in Salvant’s hushed, unaccompanied final verse.

The Gentleman is a Dope” finds Cécile back in delightfully familiar territory, with a swinging accompaniment underscoring a scornfully joyous narration over the Rodgers and Hammerstein original; the tune could easily have fit on any of her earlier albums, save for the thunderously cockeyed sonata of a solo between the first verse and the reprise. Alec Wilder’s “Trouble is a Man” is in more mature territory, a straight-up ballad sung with defiance and heartbreak in approximately equal measures. Cole Porter’s “Were Thine That Special Face” falls somewhere in between, as Salvant’s Petruchio attempts but fails to woo his Kate. “I’ve Got Your Number” starts as a cool rebuff that breaks down Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s cocky narrator before proposing that the two join forces; it’s enhanced by Fortner’s solo, which sounds a bit like Thelonious Monk sideswiping Bill Evans on a bicycle before riding off into the wobbling night.

Tell Me Why,” the old Four Aces song, is given a tender balladic performance here, with Salvant’s reading of the line “Suddenly I’m feeling happy, so happy I want to cry, oh tell me why” shifting from joy to lump in the throat within the same phrase. Salvant returns to Rodgers and Hart for “Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You,” digging into lines like “I’ve got a powerful anesthesia in my fist/and the perfect wrist to give your neck a twist” with relish.

The album finishes with an ambitious live reading of “The Peacocks” that is both helped and hurt by Melissa Andana’s presence on saxophone; both she and Cécile want to take a fair amount of portamento on the chorus and they aren’t quite in sync, resulting in some clashes. But Andana’s saxophone solo is simpatico and gorgeous, and thematically the song, presenting the clash between the beautiful surface and the unknowable inner life of the loved one, is a good summation of the album. With it Salvant rounds out her survey of different modes of failure and joy from romantic love, presenting a more cohesive and wilder artistic statement than on her previous outings.

This was Cécile McLorin Salvant’s last album for Mack Avenue. As she won a Grammy for each of her preceding albums as well as this one, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world was running out of superlatives to give her. And you’d be wrong, but she shifted to a new label before we would learn about it. We’ll hear about that journey soon. Next time, we’ll talk a bit about another jazz vocalist who was shaking up his career, and his band.

You can buy or stream this week’s album on Bandcamp or listen to it on YouTube:

Cécile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers

Album of the Week, July 6, 2024

A lot of vocal talents took the stage from the 1980s, when we checked in on the end of Johnny Hartman’s career, to the 2010s when we continue our story. Zion this series I’m skipping over a bunch of talented performers, including Diana Krall, Melody Gardot, and others, but an awful lot of those intervening vocalists were relegated to the easy-listening side of the charts. Cécile McLorin-Salvant is not easy-listening. Brilliant, yes, with a gorgeous voice, but not easy.

Salvant grew up in Miami to Haitian and French parents, and was bilingual from a young age. Studying law and voice in Aix-en-Provence, she quickly built a career as an innovative singer, winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. She made a series of albums that won critical acclaim; by the time this album was released in 2018 she had a Grammy nomination and an award for Best Vocal Jazz Album, for her 2016 For One to Love, under her belt. She was by this time steadily working with a piano trio featuring Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums, and led by Aaron Diehl.

Dreams and Daggers serves as a live document of Salvant’s evolution with this working band… with some tantalizing hints of bigger things to come. Not all of the 23 tracks on this triple album are live, and the studio recordings, like “And Yet” which opens the album, often feature a string quartet instead of the trio. But the bulk of the album is devoted to the interplay of the trio with Salvant’s voice, and it’s glorious.

I’m not going track by track through this album, but there are a few numbers that merit special mention. Bob Dorough’s “Devil May Care,” one of two Dorough numbers on the album, is given an off-kilter propulsive energy thanks to Salvant’s delivery, which tumbles headlong past bar lines and stretches out the chorus until it lands at Diehl’s feet. He plays with tempo but also with quotations, dropping a little Ferde Grofé (which to be fair is more than implied by Dorough’s melody) before proceeding into a sonata-like improvisation that concludes with a quotation from Beethoven’s Fifth (not the most famous motif, but part of the development). Bassist Sikivie plays with meter, going from common time to a version of Salvant’s skewed bars, before handing to Lawrence Leathers for a solo that calls up hints of New Orleans amid the general bombast. The group comes back, finishing in a different key, to general applause.

One of the numbers with strings alongside the trio, “You’re My Thrill” takes the Sidney Clare/Jay Gorney standard from a pretty but restrained opening to an increasingly naked expression of desire and longing, all on the strength of Salvant’s emotional range and the the spiraling tonality of the string arrangement, which seems to shift from one key to another with each bar. As does Salvant; one moment she’s Sarah Vaughan, the next she’s Marlene Dietrich. It’s gorgeous and over too soon.

And then there’s “You’ve Got to Give Me Some,” a bald faced reading of the bawdy Spencer Williams blues standard that was originally recorded by the great Bessie Smith. A big part of Salvant’s book to this point has been taking standards and reading them deeply through a woman’s perspective, and this fits that formula, and then some. This is the only number in which the piano is played by Sullivan Fortner instead of Aaron Diehl; he would go on to be her principal collaborator following this album, and he follows her closely throughout the verses and then turns into a complete beast on his solo. Of course, that’s not the reason to listen to this rendition; it’s her knowingly (and winkingly) horny delivery of every double entendre in the books, and then some. (Actually, the very best part might be her thanking her mother at the end for supporting her through eight shows, and then saying, “and I’m sorry, Mom, I’m sorry, Mom! Sorry.”)

Dreams and Daggers is a great summation of the first part of Salvant’s career, a sprawling survey that captured her unique voice, idiosyncratic taste, and ability to see deeply into the Great American Songbook. She was to dial all of those strengths up in her next album for Mack Avenue, which we’ll listen to next time.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

* PS – I try to keep to a regular schedule with these, but a one-two punch of vacation travel following business travel, plus a strained right elbow, made me decide that I would ultimately take a mulligan for last week. But I’ll see you in a week with the next album.