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As if Cécile McLorin Salvant’s relative rise to prominence (in the jazz world) wasn’t rapid enough, since 2009 she has succeeded in winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition (2010) as well as acquiring two Grammy nominations (in 2014 and one just announced for 2016) for Best Jazz Vocal Albums. She is possessed of that rather rare combination of "classical" voice training at a young age and an obvious love for gospel and blues. Add to this her talents as an actor and her sense of theater and one basically has what might be described as an operatic diva of jazz.
Such subtleties were evident in her twelve cleverly scripted and arranged pieces for this hour-and-a-half performance in Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium. She opened her show with an up-tempo version of Lerner and Loewe’s "On the Street Where You Live" that served to introduce her acoustic trio featuring Aaron Diehl on piano, Paul Sikivie on bass, and Lawrence Leathers on drums. Diehl is an exceptionally accomplished accompanist as well as a fluent soloist. As a unit, they exemplified an important ability to swing with the understated use of playing fewer notes rather than more – quite exceptional in this day and age!
Salvant has a penchant for focusing on some of the more obscure tunes from the American Songbook that one does not often hear in a jazz context. Thus Noël Coward’s "Mad About the Boy" was an interesting choice; although strictly not an American Songbook piece (Coward was British), she performed it most effectively as a poetic story/gentle ballad about a girl pining for a boy. This was an object lesson in the use of vocal dynamics for jazz singers.
On the up-tempo Frank Loesser tune "Never Will I Marry." It may have sounded like scat singing but in fact this was a very tight arrangement of a rapidly delivered story!
On several pieces, she demonstrated her gospel chops (pardon the expression!). The most effective was a funky Blanche Calloway-Clyde "Growlin' Dan" in which she utilized her extraordinary vocal range from very low to high pitch (mezzo-soprano?). Several tunes were taken at breakneck tempos and featured her dramatic skills, for example Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane's "Trolley Song" and a swinging "Something's Coming" from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story. The latter featured an exuberating chordal piano solo from Diehl and a delightfully melodic bass solo from Sikivie.
There were no solo drum features in this concert, but this is not to detract from Leathers' playing. He exhibited exceptional percussive technique that perfectly complemented the music at hand – and yes, he did use only his hands on Mississippi Fred McDowell's blues "What’s the Matter Now?" One very evocative piece actually was from an opera – Street Scene, with music by Kurt Weill; it involved intricate time changes that demanded the skills of a talented percussionist such as Leathers.
The fact that Salvant’s performances have provoked such enthusiastic responses from audiences (and the full house at Baldwin was no exception) and critics alike for so young a bona fide jazz singer in her mid-twenties is most heartening. Let us hope that, as other writers have noted, the time is ripe for a new generation of great female jazz singers to emerge. There no longer needs to be musical theater providing the fodder for melodic jazz but the other way 'round – jazz should the catalyst for musical theater. If anyone can pull that off, it is surely the "stupendous" Cécile McClorin Salvant!