When, nearly three years ago, Cécile McLorin Salvant emerged as the unexpected, and largely unknown, winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, her victory ignited the sort of hoopla that was far more common in the thriving jazz record industry of the 1990s. She was immediately signed by manager Ed Arrendell, whose client Wynton Marsalis praised her “poise, elegance, soul, humor, sensuality, power, virtuosity, range, insight, intelligence, depth and grace.” Whew! A lot to live up to, particularly for a neophyte performer barely old enough to drink. Fortunately, Salvant’s hotly anticipated Mack Avenue label debut more than justifies the hype.
When the Miami native of Haitian and Guadeloupian descent moved to France after high school and developed an interest in jazz, she was wisely instructed to study the greats, from Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters to Sarah and Ella. She’s learned her lessons well. Indeed, WomanChild‘s title track, a Salvant composition about the voyage from innocence to experience, can be interpreted as her debt acknowledgement. When she sashays into “St. Louis Gal,” Smith’s influence is patently obvious. Her sly reading of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” draws heavily on Abbey Lincoln, with distinct Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae shadings. The forthright, saucy “Nobody” owes equally to Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day and Pearl Bailey. Josephine Baker’s shadow looms large over “You Bring Out the Savage in Me.”
Yet, remarkably, Salvant is in no way derivative. She has simply taken the best of the best and synthesized them into a sound that, at once girlish and gutsy, is uniquely her own. That singularity shines brightest toward the album’s conclusion, as she tiptoes through “Jitterbug Waltz” and transforms “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” into a swirling torrent of ecstasy. It is these tracks, together with the brief fire-and-brimstone closer, “Deep Dark Blue,” that truly validate Marsalis’ hyperbolic exaltation.