12/18/12 By Evan Haga
Editor Evan Haga Introduces the December Issue
Singing praises of vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant
In New York, I can usually tell how good a show is by how far I walk after it’s over. If the weather permits, I’ll skip the subway station I’m supposed to enter for the next one, or the one after that—anything to buy me more time to process what I’ve heard. When I experienced Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman onstage together at the Beacon Theatre in 2010, I skipped the train altogether.
A week before Sandy ravaged the city, a second set by the 23-year-old singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, profiled in this issue’s Opening Chorus, sent me on another marathon stroll through Manhattan. A couple years back I watched Salvant win the Monk competition, and I recall thinking how for once that annual contest had a clear-cut winner. A precociousness in her poise and character argued she had more in common with the judging panel than with her fellow contestants. In short, I was impressed, like so many others. On this recent fall night, though, I was affected. As I trudged from Jazz at Lincoln Center through Times Square and farther downtown, I tried to pinpoint why.
The fundamentals of her singing—tone, intonation, phrasing, her graceful use of idiomatic technique—were gloriously precise. But more important, she represented a sort of antidote to what I view as being the vices of vocal jazz, a sub-genre rife with them. She projected intelligence but didn’t do it willfully. (I know, two reigning kings of self-aware hipsterism, Kurt Elling and Mark Murphy, are featured in this issue, but they do that thing with such brilliance they get a pass.) A beautiful woman in shorn hair and thick-rimmed glasses, she stylized herself in a way that accentuated her humanity. In other words, there was no cabaret sex-kitten shtick, which made the bawdy material all the more titillating. (Jazz and sex are for all adults—not just those who resemble noir-era sirens.) Her rapport with her band, led by pianist Aaron Diehl, seemed marked by respect and symbiosis rather than economic reality. When she sang in a foreign language, namely French, you could tell she actually speaks it.
On “Woman Child,” the title track to her forthcoming album, she revealed a promising gift for melodic songcraft. As for the standards—“Autumn in New York” stopped time—she erased their touchstones and made them her own. The set extended healthily over an hour, but like all great gigs it was far too brief.
Originally published in December 2012