M’Balia: Halfway There

If you number among the myriad vocal jazz fans bowled over by Cécile McLorin Salvant, prepare to be wowed anew, and in much the same way. Philadelphia’s M’Balia Singley has been singing since childhood, but postponed the launch of her professional career to study at Yale and Temple University. Getting a slightly later start than Salvant, she makes up for lost time with this stunning debut, produced by her hero and mentor, pianist Orrin Evans, who plays on all nine tracks.

Like Salvant, M’Balia blends old-school sensibilities with boldly contemporary sass. Though less studied, there’s that same sense of oneness with the elite jazz-blues lineage-from Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson-underscored by fiercely individualistic style and a generous dollop of gospel grounding. While her taste in standards (thus far at least) is less expansive than Salvant’s, her handling of “If I Were a Bell,” “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” “That’s All,” “Come Sunday” and two versions of “There Is No Greater Love” is as thrillingly imaginative. Again like Salvant she is an ace songwriter, including three originals here: “You Don’t Need & I Don’t Have,” a saucy ode to monetary and social challenges; the towering self-actualization anthem “Don’t Bet Against Me”; and, perhaps most personally, “Halfway There,” a wonderfully uplifting exploration of dream-fulfilling gumption.