Cécile McLorin Salvant – Dreams and Daggers
(Mack Avenue MAC1120. CD Review by Peter Jones)
Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, still only 28, swims against the modern tide. Where others may combine jazz with other genres, she prefers it straight; older songs greatly outnumber new ones; outbreaks of melisma and other fashionable vocal embellishments are avoided. There is no scatting. For the most part, the classically-trained Cécile favours restraint.
But lyrics are of paramount importance to her, because her great forté is the reinterpretation of a repertoire which seems, on the face of it, old-fashioned. However her often dark and contrary readings of these songs are imbued with very modern gender and racial politics. And although she looks and sounds American, and was indeed born and raised in Miami, it was to a Haitian father and a French mother, and France is where she learned about jazz. Her waspishness and wit, her dry delivery, feels distinctly European.
Most of this terrific double CD consists of material recorded live with her regular trio – Aaron Diehl (piano), Paul Sikivie (bass), and Lawrence Leathers (drums) – at New York’s Village Vanguard about a year ago. Scattered among the live recordings are a few short but intriguing studio tracks of new material recorded with a string quartet, some of it written or arranged by Sikivie.
The arrangements are often as unsettling as the vocals, for example on Mad About The Boy, where the already dark, ambivalent lyric is accompanied by Aaron Diehl’s prowling, semi-classical piano figure. After his solo Cécile returns with a sudden, bleated ‘Mad!’ and the audience titters nervously. When Noel Coward wrote the song he too must have been aware of the range of meanings conveyed by that word – passionate, certainly, but also insane, and used in the American sense, angry.
Cécile does comedy too: she’s unearthed an ancient Bessie Smith tune, Sam Jones’s Blues, in which Sam returns home to his wife after a year of ‘steppin’ around’ to be greeted with ‘You ain’t talkin’ to Mrs Jones, you speakin’ to Mizz Wilson now!’ Another lesser-known song, Jule Styne and Bob Merill’s If A Girl Isn’t Pretty, from Funny Girl, contains the painful lyric, ‘If a girl isn’t pretty like a Miss Atlantic City / She’s a real Miss Nobody USA.’ Ouch.
Much as Cécile sounds at times like Sarah Vaughan or Nina Simone, one also hears strong echoes of Blossom Dearie in this selection of tunes, with their mixture of sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavours. And once in a while the theatrical mask slips: after singing another Bessie Smith number, the astonishingly filthy You’ve Got To Give Me Some, she giggles and thanks her mother for coming to the Vanguard for eight nights in a row.
Cécile McLorin Salvant begins her next European tour at Ronnie Scott’s on 11th and 12th October, followed by dates around the continent until 3rd November.