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Review: Cécile McLorin Salvant, 'For One To Love'

<em>For One To Love </em> cover art.
Courtesy of the artist
For One To Love cover art.

It's 2015, and jazz singing is weird. Right? Its conventions seem almost antiquated: the smarmy stage presence thing, the scat improvisation thing, the singing 50-year-old songs from forgotten musicals thing. In an age when singing the blues has been so thoroughly subsumed and reconfigured within other American pop-music traditions, when a main stem has become an offshoot branch, how is a self-aware jazz vocalist supposed to sell out emotionally — and expect to sell it to a wide audience?

The answer offered by Cécile McLorin Salvant on For One To Love, the follow-up to her breakout album WomanChild, isn't to incorporate more popular idioms. There's nothing wrong with that; this just isn't that merger. If anything, it's a retreat toward older forms: to a program almost entirely about romance won, lost or in various states of seeking, scored with a traditional acoustic piano-bass-drums sound (courtesy of Aaron Diehl on piano, Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums). It's not running away from jazz singing, whatever that is — just trying to be very, very good at it.

Salvant's aesthetic idiosyncrasies immediately mark her apart, even within the space of "jazz singing." She's long had a predilection for finding rowdy songs from the dawn of the music to grow into — not exactly common for a twentysomething jazz musician — and that continues here in "Growlin' Dan" and "What's The Matter Now." There's a Francophone streak ("Le Mal De Vivre"), perhaps inherited from her French mother and formative time spent in the south of France. There's a sardonic tongue, too, as she calls Burt Bacharach's "Wives And Lovers," a song so sexist it appears on Mad Men. Increasingly, there's a clear aspiration toward establishing herself as more than an interpreter, but also a sort of singer-songwriter. Five originals chronicle romantic yearnings and successes ("Fog," "Look At Me," "Left Over," "Monday," "Underling"), and they're all taken as ballads or barely above that, with a loose sense for verse and interesting chord movement. It has at least the beginnings of a writing style that's her own.

But being different don't mean a thing if it ain't got the chops to pull it off. That's really where Salvant classes up. Her toolbox contains anywhere from a rich, husky voice to one that tiptoes theatrically, girlishly. She can play it straight, articulating and pacing clearly, or straddle the bar line with growls and whispers. She hasn't just picked up the band to do a session; it bends, crawls along, snaps into line at pace, trills, fills and overlaps her, and she's right on top of it. (Check that 10-minute essay on "Something's Coming," from West Side Story.) Salvant possesses the sort of intuition that promises to kill in a live setting; she's studied these songs and how to embody them under any circumstance. In a word, that's talent. Jazz singing or no, that sort of thing will out.

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