A few notes about Cécile McLorin Salvant at Scullers a couple of weeks ago (Friday, Oct. 2) while I can still recall more than a couple of specific details and still read my notebook scrawls. It was the first of two sold-out shows, there were selections from her last album (2013’s WomanChild), the new one (For One To Love), and even a brand new song that she said the band had played for the first time that afternoon. In the past couple of years I’ve seen McLorin Salvant as often as I’ve seen any artist in that time, and she never disappoints. In May, during her show at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, I told my wife, “She does this as well as I’ve seen anyone do anything.” Or words to that effect. You get the idea.
But, I’ll save the bloviating for some other time. For now, I’ll just try to run down the setlist, somewhat out of sequence, as quickly as possible. First up was Noel Coward’s 1932 “Mad About the Boy,” with a rubato verse introduction , then into swinging tempo, and that first great moment, with a song about a tantalizing pleasure, a desire so strong that pleasure and pain are indistinguishable. So the moment: McLorin Savant singing “In some strange way/I’m glad about the boy.” And with that word, “glad,” she tilted her head back and let the sound pour out.
McLorin Salvant has reserves of power and phenomenal range and control, but she contains it, holds back, so that when she lets it go — “GLAD!” — the results can be devastating. An emotional peak. (Note to self: find the Dinah Washington recording of this song.)
Then came Cole Porter’s “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love.” Same era as Noel, 1938, and the title almost says it all: “Most gentlemen don’t like love/they just like to kick it around.”
Then came the first original of the night, “The Fog,” from For One To Love. Here again was the rubato opening, Aaron Diehl’s piano floating in with tolling chords and chromatic pastel dissonance, and McLorin Salvant’s voice — long, drawn-out vowels: “Love appeared just like a fog.” And then into swing: “But oh/that distant calling/that yearning to yen/that longing to lean in/someone to call my own.” Somewhere in here she sang something my notebook calls “the endless note.”
The arrangement, the song structure, and McLorin Salvant’s voice — those big rich vowels (“Someone to call my OWN!”) — suggested something Sarah Vaughan might have done, though I’m not sure what. And this wasn’t a singer-songwriter song — it was more like something mimicked from the Great American Songbook. Again, research please? Where’s Alec Wilder when I need him.
Here my notes and memory go a bit slack. There was Bob Dorough’s “I’ve Got Just about Everything” — a song I’ve never heard her do before — which segued without pause into “The Trolley Song” (Hugh Martin/Ralph Blane, introduced by Judy Garland in the 1944 movie musical “Meet Me in St. Louis”). I’ve heard her do this one several times now; at Scullers she seemed to be rushing it, looking for a way to keep herself interested, and some of the lyrics got swallowed in the mix. Then “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” sung by the character Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess, with some of the lyrics elided to avoid intractable gender-specifity (“Methus’lah lived nine hundred years/But who calls dat livin’/When no gal will give in”)
Then another Porgy and Bess: “My Man’s Gone Now,” slow, operatic, with Diehl’s suspenseful trills. Then the new original, “The Best Thing for You Would Be Me,” which I remember as bright, swinging, and authoritative, and sounding not at all under-rehearsed (arrangement credited to Diehl).
Then “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” an ancient (1919) number by Clarence Williams, which, ultimately, made me miss some of the vaudeville and “race” music that I’ve heard McLorin Savant do in the past — Bert William’s “Nobody” (1905) or Sam Coslow’s “You Bring Out the Savage in Me,” inspired by trumpeter/bandleader/singer Valaida Snow’s 1935 version, or even the pre-jazz folk tune “John Henry.”
These tunes, with their upturned political incorrectness, give McLorin Salvant’s performances a subversive edge. So I’ll have to wait to hear them another time. But tonight we had her decidedly feminist retelling of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Wives and Lovers,” and “Stepsisters’ Lament” by Rogers and Hammerstein, from the 1957 TV musical Cinderella. There was “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” sounding not at all like Billie Holiday. (Billie’s short, staccato, playful “oo-oo” supplanted by longer syllables). “Underling” was another original that could have come out of the standards songbook: “All my dreams are disaster/Underling and her master.”
There’s more to say about McLorin Salvant’s radicalism, her feminist reclaiming of standards like “Wives and Lovers,” her reclamation of African-American history with songs like “The Savage in Me,” but that too will have to wait for another day. In her own way, she’s a cabaret singer, with tightly scripted arrangements (always played with thrilling precision). There’s none of the pyrotechnic improvisation of, say Betty Carter or the woozy drift of Cassandra Wilson. And yet, she reconfigures songs, plays them differently every time, and Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie, and drummer Lawrence Leathers do get a chance to stretch out. But she seems driven by the storytelling drama of musical theater (she was an opera student in college for a while). Even the old vaudeville numbers are part of that theatrical imperative. No matter. There will be time to figure out exactly who and what Cécile McLorin Salvant is. For now, just enjoy.
“Mad About the Boy”
“Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love”
“I’ve Got Just About Everything”
“The Trolley Song”
“It Aint Necessarily So”
“My Man’s Gone Now”
“The Best Thing for You Would Be Me”
“I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”
“Wives and Lovers”
“What a Little Moonlight Can Do”