Two 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.