Editor Evan Haga Introduces the December Issue

Singing praises of vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant

Cecile McLorin Salvant image 0
John Abbott

Cecile 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.