By Michael Ullman
The recital of this remarkably self-aware singer was a series of highly literate and musically satisfying mini-dramas.
Cécile McLorin Salvant and Aaron Diehl at NEC’s Jordan Hall. Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
Last Friday night in Jordan Hall singer Cécile McLorin Salvant performed a collection of mesmerizing songs that ranged from the humorous and, in its unique way tragic, 1906 lament “Nobody” (by entertainer and one-time blackface artist Bert Williams) to her sometimes almost whispered opener, an original song about her obsession with a lost lover “He’s just not that into you,” the singer’s sister told her. A kind of delicious self-mockery seems to be an integral part of Salvant’s theatricality. Singing Noel Coward’s “Mad About the Boy,” once a hit for Dinah Washington, she widened her eyes and intoned “It’s stupid to be so mad about the boy,” pronouncing “stupid” as if she was an indignant third grader. “Love isn’t so sublime,” she sang, putting a mocking wobble on “sublime.” And yet, as she sang other parts of the song, she sounded sincerely, sweetly, even hopelessly, mad about the boy.
Salvant is dramatic in every sense of the word. Her sound ran from a sweet, girlish whisper to a brash bark. There were some barrel-toned low notes I’ve only heard Sarah Vaughan reach among female singers, as well as silvery high notes. (She embraced the use of vibrato as a desired effect, not as an inevitable part of her voice.) And she has a grasp of a wide range of African-American music and the best of the American songbook. She performed “Spoonful,” first recorded in 1929 by the gruff-voiced Delta blues singer Charlie Patton. “Men lie,” she sang, pausing to let the women in the audience have a laugh, and then she went on with the rest of Patton’s first line, “men cry,” and finally, “men die” about the eponymous spoonful, which may or may not be a spoonful of cocaine. She imitated the hip patter of singer Bob Dorough on his “Nothing Like You,” which was unexpectedly introduced as the last number of Miles Davis’s Sorcerer. Salvant said it was the unexpectedness of its appearance on the album that drew her to the song, and to Dorough’s oeuvre. She sang it brassily, delighting in the extravagance of the lyrics and, I believe, in Dorough’s verbal wit. She was all brashness and clang during The Trolley Song.
Her accompanist, or really co-creator, was pianist Aaron Diehl, whose latest recording as a leader is Space Time Continuum (Mack Avenue). He’s also a wonder, a busy two-handed pianist whose hands encompass a wide variety of effects, including melodramatic glissandi, dulcet glides, and the occasional thump. Soloing, he always seems on the verge of slipping into stride style, as if he were raised on James P. Johnson or, more likely, Fats Waller. His far-ranging, wildly exciting solo section included an updating of a Waller classic, “Viper’s Drag.” He introduced that and other tunes when accompanying Salvant obliquely. These openings seemed to send a code between singer and pianist: only Salvant knew where he was headed. He might accompany her busily, playing dramatic scale passages all through her choruses. Then again, he could sometimes be almost silent, playing spare John Lewis-like chords at the end of one of her phrases.
It was a remarkable artistic collaboration to watch as well as hear. Salvant and Diehl ended one tune with an improvised coda: on the last phrase, Diehl played an extended scalar passage while Salvant held a note in a carefully controlled diminuendo. They ended exactly together: as a team, they displayed impressive precision as well as endless invention. To this listener, the perfect song for Salvant was “Nobody,” in which Williams lamented that when he needed help, there was nobody there. It’s a series of questions and Salvant’s timing was perfect … there was just enough of a pause before the inevitable “nobody.” “Who soothes my thumping, bumping brain…. Nobody.” Given the tune’s mixture of humor and pathos, it seems as if it were written for this remarkably self-aware singer, whose recital proffered a series of highly literate and musically satisfying mini-dramas.
More: Read Steve Elman’s Arts Fuse overview of Salvant’s career.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.