Cécile McLorin Salvant

The Window
(Mack Avenue)

Cécile McLorin Salvant might have been weaned on the great jazz singers, but the vocalist on this sophisticated and adult recital owes more to the orderly emotional measurements of musical theater than the nomadic spontaneity of a jazz set. Its songs, mostly covers, are said to address the “complexities” of love. OK, but that’s a net big enough to bag three-quarters of the Great American Songbook. More specifically, Salvant draws on high-end theater and cabaret songs, delivering them with nuanced dynamics and expressive precision that uses jazz more as scenery than a reigning sensibility.

In many ways, Salvant is, first, an actor. She knows that actors are dependent upon their roles and that, for her, the song is the role. She chooses carefully, sometimes unexpectedly, if not always successfully. Her repertoire mixes the safety of the familiar with the risks of the obscure. Yes, exploring the past for forgotten gems can be a provocative and rewarding quest. But it also teaches, more often than not, that there are reasons for obscurity. Good songs slip into the shadows for all sorts of reasons, most clearer in retrospect. Alec Wilder’s “Trouble Is A Man” feels like a thoughtful poem whose music seems an afterthought. “Wild Is Love” was stillborn in a 1960 Nat “King” Cole album, and a dozen fine singers since have failed to resuscitate it. And “Ever Since The One I Love’s Been Gone” never quite rises to the meticulously contoured drama that Salvant pours into it, though its bridge suggests Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday.”

Amid a program of mostly duets, pianist Sullivan Fortner mirrors Salvant’s dramatic projection. His aptitude for extravagance can spiral into crescendos of rhapsodic flourishes. But he also appreciates contrasts. He slides in and out of tempo in a long solo on “Sweetest Songs” that’s as smart as it is spikey. He also can throw in a solid splash of stride (“By Myself”) or a bit of Teddy Wilson-ish poise (“Everything I’ve Got Belongs To You”) when the occasion warrants.

Still, Salvant makes you listen. The authority of her performances forces listeners to appreciate her confidence in the material, even when it’s weak or unfamiliar. Her vocal range and elasticity clearly are made for jazz material, but for now that’s a matter for another recording. Here the bandstand becomes an intimate theater. Oddly, though, the album’s climax is a jazz standard— Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks,” performed in a long, slow whisper that becomes almost ghostly when Melissa Aldana’s tenor flutters past in fortissimo convergences.

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