REVIEW: Cécile McLorin Salvant at Ronnie Scott's

Cécile McLorin Salvant
Photo credit: ataelw/ Creative Commons


Cécile McLorin Salvant
(Ronnie Scott's, 11 October 2017. Review by Jade Lauren)

Four years ago, when I was working at Ronnie’s, Cécile McLorin Salvant played there for the first time. I was so bowled over I took to consoling my shaken self with heavy slogs of good gin and embarked on a rambling crusade of a Facebook post about how, after so many years, I’d just seen an actual Jazz singer. (Published here at LondonJazz News)

This week I was sent back with a view to rambling once more. In this industry it’s somewhat of a stretch to find a decent singer who isn’t wearing fishnets and a trilby hat and who happens to be dating the bass player of (insert band here). There are some and they know who they are, fewer still know who they really are, but we’ll get there. But this isn’t about them, it’s about this woman.

There’s a great episode of The West Wing where a group of high ranking good men in the government converse for a moment amidst the absolute absurdity of their busy lives and look around at a staff party. What bowls them over the most is ‘these women’ around them. They describe one with the vigour and charm of a '50s movie star, another with the fight and gumption of an army general who’s just won a political battle but is in it to win the war, another who lost both of her sons to an actual war and has remained so quiet and resolute on not only the issue but her duty of care to others that for 14 years she had not missed a day of work. I found myself thinking about this scene as I sat watching a woman effortlessly tear herself apart to channel so many tragedies and triumphs of the human spirit with nothing but her voice and vibe. She was all of those women and more.

I sat with two women watching the show: one a former colleague who had booked the night off from work to… be at work (I know from enough experience a good gig will warrant that from time to time); the other the wife of a former colleague and a friend of mine who’s new son I had just met outside the club. She couldn’t stay long but for the relatively short time she did she managed to catch two songs and before the end of the first I was acutely aware of the fact that she kept melting. We held each other both in wonderment and to remind her that it’s not good practice to pass out in a jazz club sober.

Since last I saw Salvant she has gone from a quietly confident loudmouth to stalking around the stage like a predator. She spent an entire song after the break giving new meanings to vowels, sans words and it still managed to communicate every gumption and swell of the heart-breaking message she put forth. What’s truly terrifying is her mastery; her sense of sonic awareness is somewhat otherworldly. It’s almost perverse and voyeuristic watching these musicians do what they do. It’s a terrible and captivatingly curious fascination you get when peering into the darker sides of humanity. There’s a reason films and documentaries about murder and madness sell, but to see raw madness up close and let it climb up inside you is another story. Most don’t live to tell the tale, but if you do, chances are you’ll end up as one of those strange and mysterious characters you find hiding in jazz clubs. It’s disconcerting until you realise they’re playing you just as they’re playing with each other.

Her band are a very special assortment of guys. She has a blood-pact of unspoken knowing with Aaron Diehl on her piano, bassist Paul Sikivie swells a melody then punctuates a verse with the odd bow to the strings and he might as well be slicing you up with the bloody thing. As for the drummer, Kyle Poole, a former colleague said it best when she remarked in hushed whispering tones: "Jesus, I can’t get over it, it sounds like he’s tapdancing on the drums for Christ sakes!” He had the Gene Kelly grin, to boot.

Another interesting titbit about this motley crew was this; you can tell the measure of some headliners in their capacity as musicians and members of that community by how they treat the support and late bands. By this measure Salvant and her crew are a class act; they sat quietly and agreeably on the front bar clapping and clicking along to the support until they took the stage and their seats were replaced with stenographers. They went on to spend quite some time hanging and jamming with the late crew to a room that was full of wonderful British talent after having Leo Richardson’s album launch at the Spice of Life kick out and turn up en-masse to join the party.

When asking what people thought of the show the running thread theme was something to the effect of “I can’t actually get over that”. Enough can happen throughout one’s life that will stick with you for better or worse. If you find yourself frequenting jazz clubs enough then it might be because you’ve had one too many hard shots of the worst! We congregate in these clubs as if they were churches for the soul. There is an incestuous community of people from every walk of life, but with the same fortuitous mistake in common: life itself. And now there is another brilliant and terrifying high priestess.

I had remarked before that no one had quite managed to capture what it was like to be in a room like that listening to her. Naturally I wasn't the only one with that observation and so thankfully her latest album, Dreams And Daggers (reviewed here) was recorded in a different church, and an older one at that: The Village Vanguard. In part it reminds me of that great old rendition of the Zawinul tune Mercy Mercy Mercy by Cannonball, it's live and in it you can hear the crowd whooping and cheering. I think it's high time we had a bit more of that in jazz clubs, and with more musicians like Cecile and her players, there's every reason to.

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