Let me just go all in at the beginning and say there's probably no better jazz singer alive right now than Cécile McLorin Salvant. The good news is she's only 27, which means we should have decades to enjoy, appreciate and marvel at her brilliance. The exciting news is that it's doubtful she's reached her prime. After admiring her recent records over the last three years, I finally got a chance to see her perform on Saturday night at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club in the first of two shows presented over the weekend by Washington Performing Arts.
While Salvant's albums are impressive (the most recent, For One to Love, won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal last year), they don't come close to capturing how good she is live. The clarity and range of her voice is one thing, but it's her phrasing, pacing, choice of material, and the way she imbues all of it with complete confidence is somewhat staggering to see and hear in a performer this early in her career. This is a singer who doesn't need to show off with histrionics, trills, or runs -- just give her the right song, and the able, intelligent back up of the Aaron Diehl Trio (Diehl on piano, bassist Paul Sikivie, drummer Lawrence Leathers), and she'll take care of the rest.
Framing the songs around a theme that roughly translated to "a woman's response to men behaving badly," Salvant wielded two weapons to slay the audience: her mastery of interpreting classic material, and her ability to turn that material into an extended, albeit understated, musical theater experience. It's one thing to create some drama out of one song -- it's entirely another to create an entire set and turn it into a performance piece that evokes laughs, tears, empathy, and joy as one song logically segues into the next.
A trio of songs in the middle created a mesmerizing portrait of a woman on the verge as the emotional tone of "Mad About the Boy" became increasingly unbalanced, followed by an even more unhinged version of "Running Wild" that took the lyrics at their most literal sense. By the time she sang "The Shape of Things," Salvant's everywoman protagonist had been brought to the point of doing very bad (and funny) things.
I doubt few if any people reading this ever had a chance to hear Billie Holiday perform live, and the few who managed to see Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan before they passed heard them way past their primes. Seeing and hearing Salvant, whose voice and style most closely resembles Vaughan's, is like a gift for those of us who missed the golden age of the great ladies of jazz. We now have one of our own.
Let's Face the Music and Dance - Irving Berlin
Tell Me What They're Saying Can't Be True - Buddy Johnson
I Get a Kick Out of You - Cole Porter
Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love- Cole Porter
Wild Women Don't Have the Blues - Ida Cox
Nothing Like You Has Ever Been Seen Before - Bob Dorough
Mad About the Boy - Noel Coward
Nothing Like You Has Been Seen Before - Fran Landesman & Bob Dorough
Running Wild - A.H. Gibbs, Joe Grey and Leo Wood
Ballad of the Shape of Things - Sheldon Harnick
Never Will I Marry - Frank Loesser
Growlin' Dan - Blanche Calloway
The Trolley Song - Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane
Encore: Guess Who I Saw Today - Murray Grand & Elisse Boyd
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