In the 12 years since Cécile McLorin Salvant arrived on the jazz scene by winning the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, she has diligently redefined the popular concept of a jazz singer. In addition to being a vehicle toward a romantic vision of emotional bliss as told in the words of the classic American songbook, Salvant has added numerous other identity tropes. She’s the cultural-studies professor examining, even interrogating the lyrics of classics. She’s the crate digger, finding nuggets from forgotten musicals and films, and obscure songs by great songwriters and singers. And she’s a storyteller, bringing an actress’ arsenal of nuanced theatricality, wit, and intelligence to her stage persona. Her accomplishments extend beyond her five albums as a leader or co-leader, several noteworthy collaborations, and three Grammy Awards. In 2020, she won a MacArthur “genius grant.”
On Ghost Song, her debut recording for Nonesuch Records, she expands her ambitions. The recording opens with a stunning cover of the Kate Bush classic “Wuthering Heights.” Salvant begins singing a cappella, bringing full operatic splendor to the verses about longing and yearning, so that when the band kicks in and she sings straightforwardly, “Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m Cathy/I’ve come home, I’m so cold,” the vulnerability and ache strike like a power chord. The other 11 tracks contain similar juxtapositions of elegance and force. The title track, for instance, starts with Salvant referencing the might of field hollers and finishes with the gentle croons of the Brooklyn Youth Choir. “Trail Mix” is a solo piece that features Salvant on piano, and on “Dead Poplar,” she sings a letter written from the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz to his wife, the legendary artist Georgia O’Keeffe. The album closes with “Unquiet Grave,” on which she sings a cappella again, bringing a symmetrical finish to a powerful recording about pain and loss.