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Jazz Corner: Cecile Mclorin Salvant at Yoshi’s

The singer has a fantastic voice ranging into multiple octaves, a command over the lyrics, phrasing that is classy and a sense of timing and delivery which is in the stratosphere

Sunil Sampat Nov 01, 2017

Cecile McLorin Salvant. Photo: ataelw/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-2.0

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Superlatives are just not what they used to be. Expressions like “awesome,” “mind blowing,” “amazing” and such like are being casually bandied about in relatively mundane, ordinary conversations, to express nothing truly exceptional.

It then becomes a real challenge when one has to describe something truly awesome or mind blowing! I have such a predicament at this time; to try and accurately describe an exceptional, way out musical experience of an unbelievably talented jazz vocalist. I shall not shy away from making a serious attempt.

When one thinks or speaks of a “legend” in almost any field of endeavor, it is usually about someone from the past. In the arts, this status, “legend” is probably measured and corroborated by the body of work produced by this artist and by some unique contribution by them. But they have, by and large, ended their careers. I encountered an exception to this phenomenon.

I was privileged to hear and witness the performance of a jazz vocalist who will almost certainly end up as a legend in her field. This is Cecile McLorin Salvant, just turned 28, who takes jazz singing to an unbelievable level. And she began her career a mere ten years ago.

One heard her perform at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California. This young lady already sings at a level very few jazz vocalists have reached in their entire careers. This matter needs to be put in its true perspective; one has had the great good fortune to hear in person—to name a few—Ella Fitzgerald (a few times), Sarah Vaughan, Etta James, Betty Carter, Carmen MacRae (several times), Joe Williams, Johnny Hartman , Ray Charles, Jon Hendricks, Nina Simone and a few others. The impact of Ms. Salvant is no less than those of the others; perhaps more than most because of her young age and because it came as a huge surprise.

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She has a fantastic voice ranging into multiple octaves, a command over the lyrics, phrasing that is classy and a sense of timing and delivery which is in the stratosphere. Her great strength is in the way the song emerges.

She breaks into a song of Ethel Waters from 1934, “Darkies Don’t Dream” without the angst of Simone yet making her point and also quite as easily mocks the quite misogynistic “Wives and Lovers” from Burt Bacharach; she then takes the Beatles’ “And I Love Her,” with which she further mesmerizes an audience which is already putty in her hands! Without exaggeration, Cecile McLorin Salvant actually “out Beatled the Beatles.”

Born to a father from Haiti and a French mother, she has got a law degree from France and she took to jazz singing at the insistence of a music teacher at her University in France, Jean- Francois Bonnel. Cecile now lives in New York and has teamed up with the superb pianist Aaron Theil. The musical understanding between Thiel and Salvant is simply incredible and the end result is quite electrifying.

She is destined to be one of the finest ever jazz vocalists. They will be searching for superlatives for her in the future as well.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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