Reviewing a “Once in a Generation” Singer, Cécile McLorin Salvant

I have never heard  Cécile McLorin Salvant’s first album from 2010, but the three from 2013, 2015 and 2017 are about as good as jazz female vocal music gets. WOW! That pretry much sums up my comments on her second album, WomanChild, which is her debut album for Mack Avenue Records. If you’ve never heard of her, in 2010 she walked away with first place in the jazz world’s most prestigious contest, the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. At the time, she was not only the youngest finalist but also an unknown. This was just the beginning of the many award nominations and recognition she has received.

Born in Miami to a French mother and a Haitian father, her first language is French. She began her musical training in classical music before she turned to jazz. When she was 5 years old, she started playing piano and, showing her gift for music, she became a member of the Miami Choral Society at age 8. After college at the University of Miami, she went to Aix-en-Provence in France where she studied law at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory and continued to develop as a singer, but with an emphasis on classical and baroque vocal music, as well as jazz. She has said, “I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where we listened to all kinds of music. We listened to Haitian, hip hop, soul, classical, jazz, gospel and Cuban music, to name a few. When you have access to that as a child, it just opens up your world.”

While she was in France, she really discovered jazz. On the WomanChild album, Salvant sings songs that  span three centuries of American music. She says, “I like to choose songs that are a little unknown or have been recorded very few times.”

I particularly like her rendition of the folk classic, “John Henry.” The instrumentation is light and breezy while her vocals are deep and powerful. It is a very interesting contrast with a great bass line. This album also includes Harry Woods’ 1934 classic “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” which is one of Becky’s favorite songs sung by Steve Tyrell. Billie Holiday also recorded a famous version of this song. Let me tell you, Salvant’s rendition brings a whole new level of passion.

You would never, I mean never, guess she that she was only 23 when this album was recorded. Her phrasing and timing are so solid yet flow in an amazingly supple and interesting way, and her range seems unlimited. You don’t have to wait long to know this album is something special. For me, I was hooked about 30 seconds into the opening number “St. Louis Gal,” a song Bessie Smith recorded ninety plus years ago, and that’s not even the oldest song on the album. It has been a good year for LP releases, and this is one of the very best. Oh, by the way, the recording is far better than most audiophile recordings, and the vinyl was dead quiet.

Her second album for Mack Avenue Records was For One To Love which introduced us further to this incredible singer as a  songwriter, visual artist and illustrator. She composed five original songs for For One To Love. They are “Fog,” “Look At Me,” “Left Over,” “Monday,”  and “Underling.”  Each of these displays Cécile’s strong personality, sharp intellect and her coy humor. Oh, by the way, the album was a huge critical success, and she won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

The album is almost entirely about romance won, lost or in various states. She is accompanied by Aaron Diehl on a traditional acoustic piano, Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums.

Yes, she is different, but she is also incredible! She has toured with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, whose music director Wynton Marsalis was quoted in a 2017 New Yorker article as saying of Salvant,”You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.”

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s latest album is  Dreams and Daggers. In 2016, she did some gigs at the Village Vanguard, and her label, Mack Avenue Records, chose to record several of her sets there. The results of these recording lead to this album. It is available as a 2-CD or 3-LP package. As good as her other albums have been, for what little I know, this is one the best jazz vocal albums in a couple of decades and maybe the best.

At only 28, I guess 27 when these were recorded, Salvant can sing anything, standards, ballads, bebop, and blues; she doesn’t just sing them, she sings all of these at the very top of their musical genre. On Dreams and Daggers, she has a more relaxed sound than on her other albums, but to me they soar above other performances with more honesty and emotion. Her band consisting of  Aaron Diehl on piano, Paul Sikivie on bass, and Lawrence Leathers on drums also seems to have grown with her, and they are on top of their game for this recording.

Most of you know how much I like the emotions of live recordings, and this is surely one of the best. I enjoyed every number on this album, and I dearly loved her interpretations of “Sam Jones’ Blues,”  “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” and “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me.”

The sound quality of this album also has to be mentioned as it may be the best-sounding live-at-the-Vanguard album I’ve ever heard. This album is a must-have for any jazz lover and for most music lovers!