Cécile McLorin Salvant
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, 15 November 2023. EFG LJF. Review by Richard Lee)
“Too much beauty can be distracting.”
Well, that’s easy for Cécile McLorin Salvant to say (as she did to Jess Gillam on Radio 3’s This Classical Life, about the exigencies of virtuosity) but when you’re faced with another evening of her exquisite voice and Sullivan Fortner’s piano mastery, distract away, I say…
There was much beauty on offer last night, the pleasures of this superduo compounded with a superb rhythm section driven by another duo of Savannah Harris on drums & Weedie Braimah on djembe, congas etc, while Yasushi Nakamura’s double bass underpinned all with a generous sound and some dramatic soloing.
Compere Kevin Le Gendre warned us of the diva’s “amazing lime green shoes” but she must have changed, for she appeared in an equally amazing pair of stacked copper clogs and layers of colour, topped with a beautiful yellow African print jacket, reminiscent of the cover of 2018’s The Window. Braimah was almost her match while the more modestly attired Fortner sat in quiet command, a smiling wizard at the piano.
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The 100 minute set was another eclectic journey through all manners of songbooks, with nods to the Great American one in Bob Dorough/Fran Landesman’s Nothing Like You & Frank Loesser’s Never Will I Marry (both from her 2017 live album Dreams and Daggers), and opening with with a barnstorming Don’t Rain On My Parade, as exuberant if not as frenetic as Streisand’s. McLorin Salvant relishes the sassiness in these songs, and writes them, too: Obligation (from last year’s Ghost Song album) was delivered with her usual subtle theatricality and featured the first of Nakamura’s commanding solos. She gave two more of her self-penned numbers from the fiercely independent recent album Melusine – the Brel-like Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent? and a furiously rhythmic reinterpretation of the joyful Fenestra where the torrential percussion interplay of Harris & Braimah soared. Later in the set, she swung into the Bacharach/David classic Wives and Lovers, her intelligent reading of it pointing up both the absurdity and mischief of the piece, while the QEH collectively held its breath on her astounding control at “ready…for love!” As she also remarked to Jess Gillam, “you can hear the smile in her (Aretha Franklin’s) voice, even if the song is sad”. She has that selfsame quality.
Asking us if we’d heard of John Dowland, one wiseacre in the audience called out “the Jimi Hendrix of the lute”, but we were treated to the ethereal beauty of Flow Not So Fast Ye Fountains which in her arrangement and charismatic delivery was as passionate as any blues, and the sheer surprise of someone negotiating ethereal madrigal lines like a Coltrane seemed to transform this 17th century madrigal into one of the great jazz standards before our very ears.
Her respect for the art of the songwriter seems paramount and while I don’t think she’d ever take a weak song just to make it better, she certainly improves on Sting’s version of Until. But the climax of the set has political weight, with the quiet power in Rhiannon Giddens’ Build A House given even more heft by it preceding Brecht/Weill’s The World Is Mean (aka “Was ich möchte, ist es viel?”). I swear she could perform the whole of Threepenny Opera herself, and the quartet’s Afro-Cuban inflection in this suggests a far-from European setting.
Of course there was an encore and of course it was McLorin Salvant’s beautiful version of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. It’s far from a novelty choice, and once again she transmutes it into gold: in this reading it’s as good as I Loves You Porgy. The song ended on a gentle cadence of “out…in” repeated to a whisper, the audience hanging once again on the sound of a sung breath.
She took mine away.
And as she also said of Aretha…”I love her more than anyone”.
Cécile McLorin Salvant voice
Sullivan Fortner piano
Savannah Harris drums
Weedie Braimah djembe, congas
Yasushi Nakamura double bass
• Don’t Rain on My Parade (Jule Styne/Bob Merril)
• Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent? (Cécile McLorin Salvant)
• Nothing Like You
• Obligation (Cécile McLorin Salvant)
• Flow Not So Fast Ye Fountains
• Fenestra (Cécile McLorin Salvant)
• Wives and Lovers (Burt Bacharach/Hal David)
• Never Will I Marry (Frank Loesser)
• Until (Sting)
• Build a House (Rhiannon Giddens)
• The World is Mean (Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht)
• Wuthering Heights (Kate Bush)