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Extraordinaire: Cécile McLorin Salvant

Cécile McLorin SalvantTwo years ago I presented Cécile McLorin Salvant and her trio at the Berlin jazz festival. At that point, most of the audience hadn’t heard of the young Franco-Haitian singer who was brought up in Miami before studying classical and baroque music at the conservatory in Aix-en-Provence. To say they were impressed by her performance would be an understatement.

For me, however, the greater privilege was to be present at her soundcheck, when she ran through two or three songs to get the feel of the hall. Among the pieces she ran down was Cole Porter’s “So in Love”, which happens to be one of my favourite songs, thanks largely to Mabel Mercer’s 1956 version. Still in her overcoat (it can be chilly in Berlin in November, and singers need to be careful), she had me transfixed by the way she drew out the song’s elegance with simple, unaffected directness.

A few hours later, during the concert itself, she gave it a very different delivery: much more highly wrought, full of decoration and elaboration and dynamic contrast, making full use of her phenomenal vocal technique and fine imagination. And it didn’t move me nearly as much.

This, I thought to myself, is a brilliant young artist still discovering and celebrating her own extraordinary abilities. At this stage, is natural for her to push everything as far as she can. Come back in 20 years’ time, I concluded, and she’ll be singing “So in Love” the way she did at the soundcheck, with an understanding that sometimes less is more.

Her new album, Dreams and Daggers, has a lot of that exuberance, and you can hear its effect on an audience in the tracks recorded live with the trio at the Village Vanguard in September of last year. There’s an almost audible attentiveness and a lot of whooping when, having executed a breathtaking series of vocal aerobatics, she finally brings a song back to earth.

She’s not a show-off, and she doesn’t scat (thank goodness). She has some of the girlish flexibility of the young Ella Fitzgerald, some of Sarah Vaughan’s ability to manipulate her tone in quietly jaw-dropping ways, and some of Betty Carter’s combination of daring and sheer musicianship. That’s a fair old combination. Occasionally she can overdo it, as in a highly dramatised version of “My Man’s Gone Now”, but most of the time her twists and turns are at one with the material.

Her originality will take time to emerge, but it is certainly there. At the moment it reveals itself most clearly in her choice of material, which is built on a foundation of standards — “You’re My Thrill”, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, “Mad About the Boy” and so on — but also includes items intended to prod her listeners in interesting ways, through “Si je serais blanche”, from the repertoire of Josephine Baker, “Somehow I Never Could Believe”, Kurt Weill’s setting of Langston Hughes’s lyric, and the feminist irony that bubbles away in her readings of “Never Will I Marry” and “If a Girl Ain’t Pretty”.

She and her brilliant trio — Aaron Diehl (piano), Paul Sikivie (bass) and Lawrence Leathers (drums) — make a formidable unit, particularly on something like a tightly arranged version of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”. There are delightfully insouciant treatments of the two ultra-hip Bob Dorough tunes, “Nothing Like You” and “Devil May Care”, recorded by Miles Davis in 1962.

Half a dozen studio-recorded tracks on this 2-CD set feature a string quartet, arranged by Sikivie to add a welcome astringency. By contrast there’s the singer’s penchant for covering the work of the early classic blues singers: here we get lusty versions of Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” and Bessie Smith’s haughtily dismissive “Sam Jones’ Blues”. “Don’t need your clothes, don’t need your rent,” she sings, “don’t need your ones and twos. Though I ain’t rich, I know my stitch. I earned my strutting shoes.”

By a distance, she is the most interesting jazz singer to come forward in the past couple of decades. The new album reaffirms the impression that her virtuosity, such a double-edged gift, could take her anywhere.

* Dreams and Daggers is released by Mack Avenue Records on September 29.


Lucinda Williams in London

Lucinda Williams 1It had been an enjoyable enough concert for the first 40 minutes or so, but when Lucinda Williams dismissed her band and introduced “The Ghosts of Highway 20”, the mood of the evening deepened. “I’ve been filled with the need when I’ve sung this song lately to say that not everybody from the South is a bad person,” the woman brought up in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas told the crowd at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. They knew what she was getting at.

Delivering the title track of her most recent album alone with an acoustic guitar, she managed to surpass the fine recorded version, which featured the entwined lead guitars of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz. Somehow she found a lilt within the song that added an emotional dimension. It introduced the evening’s satisfying central section, which included the exquisite “Over Time”, from the 2003 album World Without Tears; it had, she said with pride, been covered by Willie Nelson (here’s their duet version), and in London the band found a lovely gliding gait.

Earlier she had talked a bit about how, when her long career began to take off, she was criticised for writing too many dark and gloomy songs. So it was amusing that, when she did lift the tempo to a rockabilly shuffle late in the concert, it accompanied a song (also from the last album) called “Bitter Memory”. And it’s true that the bleakness in her raw voice might not be what you want all the time. But sometimes she can confront a distressing subject such as her late father’s Alzheimer’s disease (in “If My Love Could Kill”) and make it not just painful but uplifting.

Another of last night’s highlights was “Sweet Old World”, the title track of a 1992 album which she has re-recorded in its entirety for release next month on her own label. It features the band with which she is touring: Stuart Mathis on guitar, David Sutton on bass guitar and Butch Norton on drums. They’re a capable unit, and Norton in particular is a fine colourist and energiser, but to me it was interesting how the evening lit up each time the music reached for something beyond the generic shuffle and boogie of the old roadhouse beside the two-lane blacktop.

Walter Becker 1950-2017

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen 2

Chinese music always sets me free / Angular banjos sound good to me

In a single couplet, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen made fun of themselves with wonderful grace and wicked sophistication: the qualities that imbued the music they made together. It’s so sad to think that the announcement of Becker’s death today, at the age of 67, puts an end to one of popular music’s great songwriting and record-making partnerships.

Amid the booming rock scene of the 1970s, in which anything seemed possible, Steely Dan made music that will last. That doesn’t make them unique, but it is a tribute to the enormous care and effort Becker and Fagen put into constructing the nine studio albums they made together under that name between 1972 and 2003. Their clever words, clever time-signatures and clever chords were the product of two enthusiasts dissatisfied with anything but the cleverest music they could possibly produce.

Fagen first encountered Becker at Bard College in upstate New York. He was walking past a building used for musical practice and heard someone playing a guitar in the style of Howlin’ Wolf’s records. The two bonded quickly over their shared interest in, as Fagen put it in his statement today, “jazz (from the ’20s through the mid-’60s, W.C Fields, the Marx brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films… Also soul music and Chicago blues.” All that, and much more, was in their music.

They were also unique in that, as musicians in their own band, they usually preferred to call on others to enhance their vision. Becker started as Steely Dan’s bass player, but he was also very fine rock guitarist — just listen to his lead parts on “Black Friday”, from Katy Lied“Josie”, from Aja and “West of Hollywood” from Two Against Nature. Yet he was happy to hand that job to a succession of players with different skills and sensibilities. Some of them were Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Elliott Randall, Dean Parks, Hugh McCracken, Lee Ritenour, Jay Graydon and Steve Khan. The same would be true of the attitude he and Fagen shared towards the keyboard players, drummers and saxophonists they chose to articulate their vision: only the best, on their very best day, would do.

And so, very unusually in their chosen field, their wild imaginations were matched by their obsessively exigent craftsmanship. They were also some kind of weird cats. They were lucky to have their partnership, and so were we.

* The photograph of Becker (left) and Fagen is, I believe, by Anton Corbijn. I hope he doesn’t mind my use of it on this occasion. For the story of the duo in great detail, concentrating on the music, I recommend Anthony Robustelli’s Steely Dan FAQ (Backbeat Books, 2017).