Cecile McLorin Salvant sings with control, art, and a knowledge of the jazz vocal tradition that is vast. Her instrument is rich: with a large range, many tonal colors, and superb rhythmic placement. She also works with a great range of repertoire: jazz standards, Tin Pan Alley classics, rock era classics, and original songs. Among contemporary jazz singers, she is among the most technically brilliant, almost as if an engineer drew up the plans for the perfect jazz vocalist circa 1965.
So, yes, there is a brilliance about McLorin Salvant as well as a retro cage in which she sometimes seemed trapped. Her latest, The Window, however, makes her feel fresh and present at the moment, less self-conscious. More immediate in every way.
The Window finds McLorin Salvant appearing with pianist Sullivan Fortner in the studio and live at the Village Vanguard, strictly in a duo format. Fortner is a gentle, detailed, superb accompanist, crafting original arrangements that never settle for just laying down the chord changes. Fortner plays specific parts, lines, colors, and feelings—and on two tracks he works in some organ. His solo sections are imaginative and fully equal to the creativity of the singer. McLorin Salvant’s performances, with a couple of exceptions, are her best work—controlled and artful without being over-sung. It is a set of tiny pleasures.
Many of the tracks on The Window are miniatures, quick and clever settings for standards that are lesser known. “By Myself” is a bouncing two minutes-plus that nevertheless provides Fortner with a chorus on which to show off his stride piano style, which he carries though on the bridge as McLorin Salvant rejoins him—it’s hip and fun as if Sarah Vaughan had recorded an album with Art Tatum. “Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You” is less than 90 seconds long, but it pops with an impish swing, with McLorin Salvant showing that has put an ear on Blossom Dearie as well as on Betty Carter and Ella Fitzgerald. It’s over in a blink, but that’s why this disc has room for 17 tracks.
The duo is not always playful. “Every Since the One I Love’s Been Gone” is a dramatic ballad by Buddy Johnson, and Fortner plays it in a serious, dark, slow stride, with McLorin Salvant getting plenty of room above the accompaniment to bend her notes and twist her tone for emotional effect. She particularly digs into her lower register on “I’m gone”, before coyly twisting the song’s title just before the piano solo. Jimmy Rowles’s “The Peacocks” (with words by singer Norma Winstone) almost makes it to ten minutes in a creepingly beautiful trio that adds tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana. Each musician stays completely inside the song, with Fortner playing a quiet bed of atmosphere and Aldana sticking to long tones that eventually overlap with the vocal in harmony that shudders with feeling.
The critical strength of this live performance is not just in McLorin Salvant’s subtlety but also in her ability to pull back from using every one of her sounds and strengths all across the nine-plus minutes. We get to hear this great singer “performing” less and allowing the song to express itself more purely. That is not the case on some tunes where McLorin Salvant, for better of worse, emotes on STUN.
The version of Bernstein’s “Somewhere” (from West Side Story) is an example—heavy. Fortner’s introduction is a tiny overture for the show, moving through several WSS tunes before the vocal enters. His solo is set over a thrumming left hand that shudders with a kind of aria-like weightiness. McLorin’s vocal begins in one of her frequently-heard modes—with twisting timbre and pronunciation on every other syllable. It is not out of control or amateurish—it is done with incredible care and control—but it is not at all clear why the second “us” of the lyric gets a bluesy warble and timbral sneer when that gesture isn’t used on any other note. Who knows why she chooses whooshing downward glissando on “We’ll – find – a – way – of” before “forgiving”. Each choice is gorgeously, flawlessly performed but why these choices and why a different choice on practically every phrase in the song? It’s not that she is showing off technique as much as cramming the song with too many dramatic singing affections. Tremulous and infused with INTERPRETATION, the song itself, the words, and the feeling almost disappear from your consciousness.
But on this set, “Somewhere” is the exception rather than the rule. The Stevie Wonder tune “Visions” gets a less loaded treatment, with McLorin Salvant cracking her voice slightly on “mi-i-ind” in the opening phrase, for example, but generally keeping her vocal trickery much less foregrounded. Fortner’s piano solo is voiced with so much originality and care that it sounds only partly improvised, but who cares—it’s that good. “Obsession” is a gently, conversationally articulated song that exudes casual grace while still allowing McLorin Salvant’s voice to show off moments of rich tone and depth. “Wild Is Love” is more playful, with a flirtatious and long Forter introduction and then a dancing play between the melody and the piano. McLorin Salvant plays with the song like it is a beach ball high in the air. The duo’s readings of “The Gentleman Is a Dope”, “Trouble Is a Man”, and “Were Thine That Special Face” are also modulated in this space: with Fortner sympathetic but original and the leader pulling back from the pyrotechnics she’s capable of to deliver the song with interpretation and heart.
In the end, The Window wins you over with its moments of greatest simplicity and emotion, like all the very good art. If you’ve ever been in love, you will need to listen to “Tell Me Why” on repeat, with its clean, timeless combination of graceful piano movement and McLorin’s Salvant’s dead-on perfect combination of artful embellishment and straight-from-the-heart clarity. Only artists capable of much more can provide the kind of less that makes this song work. And perhaps it helps that the song is rarely enough performed that you cannot find another version on the internet. It seemingly comes straight at you without history—of the song or of the jazz singers to whom Cecile McLorin Salvant is so often compared—haunting it.
The Window is the recording of this singer most likely to haunt you rather than just blow you away.