CD Review: Cécile McLorin Salvant - WomanChild

Cécile McLorin Salvant - WomanChild
(Mack Avenue MAC1072. CD Review by Alison Bentley)

American singer Cécile McLorin Salvant's début album WomanChild reveals a voice with a deep, knowing side, as well as a childlike playfulness. Still in her early 20s, she was winner of the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2010 and is already being fêted as the heir to the great jazz singers. Her repertoire and style are cool and modern as well as reaching back into jazz history.

There are two Bessie Smith covers: St. Louis Gal and Baby Have Pity on Me. McLorin Salvant sings with Smith's bluesy phrasing, laid-back but gentler, less raunchy. Every characterful detail is exposed by James Chirillo's lovely understated guitar- he plays on these two tracks only. There are two songs taken from popular early African American performers, which are full of humour. Nobody was sung by Bert Williams in the 1900s and is reworked with some excellent stride piano from Aaron Diehl. McLorin Salvant brings out the song's wry humour: 'When life seems full of clouds an' rain/ and I am filled with naught but pain,/ who soothes my thumpin' bumpin' brain ?/Nobody!'

Valaida Snow's You Bring Out the Savage in Me is sung with exquisite humour, over a fiery Afro-Latin groove. McLorin Salvant plays with vocal tones, from a Judy Garland drawl to a Blossom Dearie whisper. As McLorin Salvant puts it: 'I think you can make fun of the idea of jazz as “savage music” even while wanting to be primal'. Abbey Lincoln inspired her to 'go for it' as a singer, and she has a little of Lincoln's declamatory style in John Henry, a traditional song about the death of a railway worker. There's a toughness to the voice over the New Orleans-ish fast groove, with percussive piano.

Born in Miami to a French mother and Haitian father, McLorin Salvant’s first language was French. She's set Haitian poet Ida Faubert's poem Le Front Caché Sur Tes Genoux to music with a 6/8 jazz feel. She sings the emotive lyrics with a low, affecting vibrato. She's been studying Classical singing as well as jazz in France, and her own song Deep Dark Blue has long, beautifully-controlled vocal notes over Ravel-like dramatic piano. Her song WomanChild is autobiographical, 'Woman child falters/Clumsy on her feet/ Wonderin' where she'll go...', but it also, she's said, expresses her view of art- how it should be adult and childlike at the same time. The band moves from a McCoy Tyner-like swagger to compelling swing. Sarah Vaughan was an early influence on McLorin Salvant, and like Vaughan, her voice flickers between a full-powered tone and a mischievous, girlish sound.

The standards bring out the most modern aspects of McLorin Salvant's voice. I Didn't Know What Time it Was frames the voice with rhythmic stops, and McLorin Salvant sounds uncannily and beautifully like 60s Betty Carter. Her sense of swing is surefooted with a mixture of delicacy and confidence. There's a fine boppy melodic bass solo from Rodney Whitaker and sparkling piano solo from Diehl. There's a Lull in My Life is prefaced by Prelude, an instrumental section which displays the talents of the virtuosic and versatile piano trio. An excellent subtle backbeat and 12/8 feel from drummer Herlin Riley brings in the vocals. McLorin Salvant's said she wants '... to get as close to the centre of the song as I can,' and her expressive diction brings out the meaning brilliantly; as she sings 'the clock stops ticking' right behind the beat, you can almost hear the clocks slowing down. McLorin Salvant accompanies herself on piano on Jitterbug Waltz; she sings with such spontaneous, gamine glee, you feel you're waltzing with her.

Her rendering of What a Little Moonlight Can Do (much performed by Betty Carter) shows McLorin Salvant's full range- vocally and emotionally. She told one interviewer: 'When I sing I try not to think too much, and get into the story of the song...I get into that moment and just go.' There are swathes of long, improvised notes, haunting and intimate, over the piano trio's free-ish modern harmonies. They're interspersed with passages of fast swing, underpinned by Whitaker's immaculate bass. McLorin Salvant chokes comically and touchingly on the words '... all day long you'll only stutter, your poor tongue- it will not utter the words'.

McLorin Salvant matches playfulness with superb technique; devil-may-care performance with dedicated love of jazz. I can't wait for the next album.

See also this report of Cecile McLorin Salvanr's Ronnie Scotts's debut

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