How I Fell For Cécile

Photo by Rob Davidson/courtesy Jazz at Lincoln Center

I’d heard about her charms.
I’d heard her voice, so I knew her charms.
But not really. Not yet.
I’d resisted. Been busy. Besides, been burned so many times by singers who promised to take me to that place only real jazz singers can yet then left me cold. Or worse, I felt nothing at all, like the problem were mine, as if I were just hung up on singers that are gone (Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter) or had made themselves scarce but still wonderful (Cassandra Wilson).
They said she was from Miami. From Haiti. From France. (In fact, she is from all those places, by way of birth, heritage and study abroad.)
It’s not like I didn’t notice Cécile McLorin Salvant, like that time she copped top prize at the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.
Yes, I was paying attention. I listened to her Grammy-nominated CD, “WomanChild” (Mack Avenue), on which I heard both the woman and the child, both born singers with something to say and century’s worth of less-traveled (and some brand-new) material through which to express it. Probably because I hadn’t caught her in live performance, I thought all those voices buzzing around her were, well, just buzz.
I did nod when Ben Ratliff wrote, in his astute New York Times review of that CD:

“….to concentrate on Ms. Salvant’s song choices and all the bases she’s covering might gloss over the best parts of “WomanChild,” which is the precision of her wide voice and also her volatility, her tension between deference and extravagance, her willingness to play with sound and start rising to the higher atmospheres of improvising, where some of the greatest musicians get more mileage out of forgetting than out of remembering. And, too, her rich partnership with the pianist Aaron Diehl, who is also a kind of classicist at play…”

The connection she had with Diehl said nearly as much as the way she phrased a lyric—knowing and utterly in control.
I laughed hard when she said last year in an interview for a Wall Street Journal feature, after Will Freidwald asked why a 23-year-old singer [now 24] would be more interested in Bert Williams or Billie Holiday than in Justin Bieber or Jay-Z:

“When Justin Bieber can write something that’s both happy and sad at the same time, that can make you laugh even while it’s moving you to tears, then I’ll sing one of his songs.”

I finally got it—got hooked, the way you do with a jazz singer you want hear again (like, say, Andy Bey)— on a recent Friday night at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. I was there to hear a brand-new band, the Spring Quartet, packed with talent and intrigue—drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Esperanza Spalding and pianist Leo Genovese. That group was good and even in a way necessary, though it is yet to develop into what it will be.
It was Salvant I came away remembering. She has already arrived at what she wants to be.
Red heels, red lipstick and a big red fascinator atop her head. Chunky white framed glasses. It was a look, and yet I couldn’t really tell what she looked like. It hardly mattered. She’s a musician, first and last.
I already knew what she could do with “Nobody,” the century-old signature song of vaudeville blackface performer Bert Williams, and still, she got me to uncross my arms and stop thinking about time. Or I was thinking about her time—how commanding it was, how much she owned it, especially when she negotiated a tidy but also tricky arrangement to Cole Porter’s “So In Love.”
She made me think about those singers, the ones that aren’t coming back: Betty Carter, when she swooped up notes and led her trio from here to there; Sarah Vaughan, when she released a taste or two of lush round blues-spun vibrato; Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone, as she whispered or growled or spoke softly, in tune; Billie Holiday, when she had to look away. But then she swiped them all from me, and I heard just her.
She talked dirty, like blues singers do (but rarely on Jazz at Lincoln Center’s stage), on “You’ve Got to Give Me Some,” stealing both words and attitude from Bessie Smith without sounding derivative. Then she disowned that act when she was done, admitting to being ashamed because her mom was in the audience.
At Rose Hall, right before she left, like a wink but much better—I didn’t see it coming—she gave one strong high note, a note I didn’t know she had and definitely hadn’t asked for, to finish Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “Something’s Coming,” a song I never would have wanted, or so I thought.
But she thought otherwise. She’s the kind of singer I’ve been waiting for—haven’t you?—simply because she isn’t afraid of being flat-out jazz and not also sort of something else.

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