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It was almost three years to the day that I first reviewed Cécile McLorin Salvant's rapid rise to prominence (in the jazz world). Her return to Duke Performances was part of a weeklong tribute largely to women in jazz. She did not disappoint in her duet performance with the brilliant pianist Sullivan Fortner.
Some have described Salvant as a "postmodern cabaret singer." In effect she has created a sophisticated stage show out of two persons with a complementary and highly skilled jazz pianist partner; his sense of humor as an accompanist as well as a soloist were evident throughout. The audience was drawn into the action both emotionally and physically. Salvant's perfect enunciation (much in the fashion of jazz maven Carole Sloane) made each word clear, even as her rich voicing conveyed the lyrics as a continuous stream. The vocal/piano format of Salvant/Fortner showcased the seesawing versatility of pianist and vocalist in complete synchrony.
The musical themes of this performance ranged from comedy to tragedy as they improvised stories with jazz theatricality. "Sam Jones' Blues" (R. Turk, J. R. Robinson), very up tempo and staccato, was a blues tune about exacting revenge, with the musicians acting in partial song and partial oratory in a way unique to this musical idiom. Punch lines were clearly delivered as such by Salvant, who described the errant Mr. Jones as "stepping 'round" and made him richly aware that "You ain't talking to Mrs. Jones, you're speaking to Ms. Wilson now!"
Similarly, "Send in the Clowns" (Sondheim) has nothing to with circus clowns but rather to do with misadventures on stage during a theatrical production.The duos' lovely rendition of the jazz standard "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" (Rodgers and Hart) evoked young love as title and lyrics promise. The gentle, lean piano of Fortner underscored Salvant's syrupy vocals removing any traces of sentimentality and bringing much deserved attention to the melody, lyrics and voicing of Salvant.
Another tongue-in-cheek lyric, depicting the dynamic conflict in all relationships, was a fantastic foil for the duo in "Everything I've Got Belongs to You" (Richard Rodgers, 1942, for the musical By Jupiter). Bright riffs and improvisation by pianist Fortner complemented a staccato delivery by Salvant. This brought to mind echoes of Blossom Dearie, who sang/recorded the song in the 60's, albeit using stronger, no-expletives deleted language.
The exuberance and joy of sisterly love were as evident in "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" (Clarence Williams and Armand Piron, 1919; also attributed to Louis Armstrong and/or Anna Jones/Fats Waller) as was the poignance of sisterly love shown in the artist's rendition of "Send in the Clowns" (sung at her sister's wedding). Salvant's enunciation again emphasized rhyme with rhythm. Laughter encompassed the audience as she sang of sister Kate who shimmies like jelly on a plate and declared that she was late but would be up to date when she could shimmy!
Many observers will agree with Ben Ratliff, who writes in The New York Times that Salvant "sings clearly, with her full pitch range, from a pronounced low end to full and distinct high notes, used sparingly. Her voice clamps into each song, performing careful variations on pitch, stretching words but generally not scatting; her face conveys meaning, representing sorrow or serenity like a silent-movie actor." One glance at the mesmerized, sold-out audience confirmed this!
Salvant's latest album, The Window was released this fall. It has just been nominated for a Grammy this year.