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.

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John Abbott

Cecile McLorin Salvant

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

2 Comments

  • Jan 25, 2013 at 04:18PM Andrea_Wolper

    I'm scratching my head over this review. Don't get me wrong: Ms. Salvant is a talented rising star, and I'm glad Mr. Haga is helping to spread the word. But it's disappointing that in praising Ms. Salvant, Mr. Haga draws on worn-out stereotypes of female jazz singers; for one thing, it's not really much of a compliment that the “more important” thing about Ms. Salvant is that she doesn't fit the cliché. I get the feeling Mr. Haga doesn't have much respect for the art of jazz singing—a “sub-genre” he says is “rife” with “vice”—or its practitioners. (In fact, I suspect Mr. Haga falls into a different sub-genre: the “I don't usually like jazz singers, but this one's good--what a shock!” camp.) I can't help but wonder if Mr. Haga even takes in many vocalists; I say that because of all the jazz singers I know (and I know a lot of 'em, being one myself), I can't think of a single “cabaret sex kitten” or “noir-era siren.” Oh, I'm sure they're out there, but if that's what he's finding, then he's looking for jazz vocal love in all the wrong places. This city is full of intelligent, talented, and in many cases exciting and creative jazz singers. Some are solidly carrying on the traditions, and others are expanding the boundaries, carving out places in jazz on their own often singular terms. In other words, it's not that hard to find the real thing if you know where to look.

    Mr. Haga, please allow me to provide you with a list of female jazz singers you can see right here in New York. Whether or not you'll enjoy any of them will be a matter of personal taste, but I'm pretty sure you won't find a single one of them draped across a piano. I'm even more sure that clichéd image will start to fade—and maybe even disappear.

  • Feb 04, 2013 at 12:45PM Debbie Orta

    Andrea, I see your point and have to say I agree that reviewers do tend to single out their most recent 'favorite' jazz singer and proceed to make generalizations about jazz singers in general. It would be lovely to hear Evan Haga say that he also can see your point, and I hope he takes you up on your offer to get out and see that ladies who sing jazz are as varied as night and day, and very few are working solely based on imitating "Jessica Rabbit". However, I would also suggest to Evan that some singers may be physically classic beauties who capitalize on that as well. As long as they deliver a pleasing performance, it shouldn't be a negative. Take a look a Roberta Gambarini, a gifted and respected jazz singer who recently posted some very sexy promo pics on Facebook and performs in slinky dresses. She can't help being sexy. As the song says, 'you can't take that away from her'.

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