With Grammy awards on her mantelpiece for each of her last three albums, Cécile McLorin Salvant could be cruising. Instead she’s challenging herself and her audience. Listening to her at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday, I was reminded of Rhiannon Giddens: these are women with powerful voices, vast musicality, great curiosity, and a disinclination to opt for the comfortable life that could be the reward for the acclaim both have received in recent years.
For the tour preceding the arrival of her next album, Ghost Song, early next year, McLorin Salvant has jettisoned the familiar support of a jazz piano trio in favour of a kind of chamber quintet featuring flute (Alexa Tarantino), guitar (Marvin Sewell), piano (Glenn Zaleski), bass (Yasushi Nakamura) and percussion (Keito Ogawa). Carefully deployed, the ensemble is flexible enough to cover all the territory she now explores as she expands her range from the basic repertoire of ballads and blues.
Her own songs at this concert included “Fog”, from the 2015 album For One to Love, the new “Thunderclouds”, inspired by Les Enfants du Paradis and finished with a couple of lines from Colette, “Obsession”, from 2018’s The Window, and the haunting “Ghost Song” itself, her voice on its final chorus plaintively joined by that of Tarantino. In these compositions, Broadway theatre music meets art song and the virtuosic inventiveness of Betty Carter meets the emotional focus of Nina Simone.
Her choice of cover versions was intriguing. “I Want to Know” was an ’50s-style R&B song, a 12-bar blues with a bridge, showcasing Sewell’s fine bottleneck playing. Brecht and Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” came from Simone’s repertoire, sung with a teasing lightness. Sting’s “Until…”, from the soundtrack to the 2001 film Kate & Leopold, was interestingly rearranged to culminate in a Latin section featuring fine flute and piano solos. But the biggest surprise came with “Wuthering Heights”, a song I cordially detest in its original version, here slowed and spun into something mesmerisingly beautiful, its gimmicks completely removed in order to facilitate this remarkable transfiguration.
She’s on a journey, just as Cassandra Wilson, a member of a previous generation, was when she moved from the supper-club safety of Blue Skies in 1988 to the uncharted waters of Blue Light ‘Til Dawn five years later, using different instrumentations to tackle Robert Johnson, Joni Mitchell and the Monkees. Even McLorin Salvant herself may not know where her well-stocked mind and innately inquisitive spirit will take her in the coming years, but from the sound of Tuesday’s ovation she will not be alone on the trip.