The packed house at New York’s 92nd Street Y was no pushover. A skeptical lot accustomed to hearing the cream of mainstream jazz—the Y’s Jazz in July series, in its 33rd year, has long been an oasis in the city’s summer-programming desert—they had come to catch the phenomenon that is Cécile McLorin Salvant. And, on this witheringly hot night, only a phenomenal performance would do.
She did not disappoint. Backed by the redoubtable Bill Charlap Trio, the singer worked her way through a series of Cole Porter tunes—many familiar, a few not—forming a bond with composer and audience alike as she revealed the extraordinary range, both musical and emotional, that has propelled her to a singular critical and commercial success at age 28. (She has topped the Female Vocalist category in the DownBeat Critics Poll for four consecutive years.)
Sporting a smile that radiated throughout the concert hall, Salvant, bedecked in a patterned dress and glam glasses, communicated an unalloyed joy—eliciting knowing laughs on relative trifles like “It’s Bad For Me,” loving looks on kicky paeans like “You’re The Top” and more than a few sideways glances on dubious odes to part-time love like “All Through The Night.”
But it was her ability to convey contradictory emotions that sealed the deal. Even as she plumbed the depths of despair—whispering in quiet desperation on the final bars of “What Is This Thing Called Love” or riding a descending glissando into the moody environs of her lower register on “Every Time We Say Goodbye”—she maintained an air of exuberance. The cognitive dissonance was exhilarating.
“One of the reasons she’s being so lauded is that she has all the elements in wonderful balance,” said pianist Charlap, the series’ director, who recently collaborated with Tony Bennett. “And as she is maturing, her conception is deepening.”
Relaxing in her Harlem apartment at dusk on a late June day, Salvant, dressed casually and wearing her signature eyeglasses, evinced an easy awareness of her deepening conception and how it was reflected in the steady progress she had made toward harnessing her gift. “It comes with getting older,” she said, “knowing the process more, being less afraid.”
As she put it, her first album for Mack Avenue and her United States debut, 2013’s WomanChild, had found her more than a little wary of failure as handlers tried to shape her image in ways with which she was not wholly comfortable. “I was like, ‘What will happen? It’s going to be a disaster.’ They were putting makeup on me and I was going with the flow.”
Despite her concerns, WomanChild—which, as the title suggests, addresses the contradictions inherent in reconciling an adult mindset with the childlike sensibility necessary for artistic creation—was well received. Among other high points, it yielded the title tune, one of the first of her originals to gain enough traction to become a regularly performed part of her songbook.
Her follow-up album, 2015’s For One To Love (Mack Avenue), gave her more control and earned the Grammy for best vocal jazz album. Notwithstanding continued efforts at branding—efforts to which she never warmed—“I still did a very intimate album,” she said, “an album of all the songs I wanted to sing.” Among them were five originals and, notably, the Burt Bacharach-Hal David relic from the Mad Men era, “Wives And Lovers.”
The inclusion of that tune constituted a risk; many listeners find its lyrics demeaning to women, and few artists have tackled it in recent years. But her sharp-edged take, which revels in the era’s swinging aesthetic, is now something of a staple among her fans. Her rendition acknowledges the tune’s musicality, even as it critiques its social content.
Salvant’s sanguine take on the tune, qualified though it might be, is, like much of her commentary, operating on multiple levels. She rediscovered the tune, she said, after undertaking a Google search for the top sexist songs. And as her treatment of it has ripened, it has become of a piece with her work generally in the addressing of social issues in popular song.
That work has reached a new level of ambition with her latest Mack Avenue album, Dreams And Daggers. Out Sept. 29, the album encompasses an impressive 23 tracks, divided between standards and originals intended as commentary on them. The standards were recorded over three nights at New York’s Village Vanguard with her working trio—Aaron Diehl on piano, Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums—while the originals were laid down in a day at the DiMenna Center in Manhattan. Those cuts—featuring her trio and a string group, the Catalyst Quartet—are arranged by Sikivie with lyrics by Salvant (and, in one case, the iconic Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes).