By Steve Elman
To hear this performance properly, you must do a bit more work than you might do ordinarily … but great art deserves such work.
Should you take 20 minutes out of your day to donate to a Haitian charity and hear three original songs by our greatest living song interpreter?
Of course you should.
A Covid-era live recital by a consummate artist who has not made a commercial recording in more than a year is an event of major importance, even if it is all too brief. The B-side of that proposition is that each of these three performances can be savored like small glasses of great wine.
But first, a caveat or two: listening to Cécile McLorin Salvant (CMS from here on) and Sullivan Fortner in one room of her home is not like hearing them in a concert hall. It’s not just the lack of resonance in the acoustics, or the occasional note on the upright piano that isn’t quite in tune, or the fact that the video is slightly upcut (so you don’t even have a few seconds of quiet to put yourself in the mood). It’s the lack of that magic of rapt attention that a devoted audience gives to the music at the usual CMS performance.
As a result, to hear this performance properly. you must do a bit more work than you might do ordinarily … but great art deserves such work.
You have to resist the temptation presented by the fact that this is an online video — fraught with that pernicious notion that you can do something else while enjoying the music. If you want to appreciate what CMS does, you cannot multitask. In fact, you need to approach this short video in the way you would approach a session of meditation. Clear your mind. Center your soul. Then click, and listen with both ears and watch with both eyes.
The performance is CMS’s way of helping a charity that works in Haiti to assist people with HIV-related conditions and other serious illnesses. (No surprise there, since half of her heritage is Haitienne.) The organization is GHESKIO, whose acronym stands for “Groupe Haïtien d’Étude du Sarcome de Kaposi et des Infections Opportunistes,” a mouthful even in French — it translates to “Haitian Group for the Study of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections.” The website of the Haitian Global Health Alliance describes GHESKIO as “an international leader in clinical care and research for HIV, tuberculosis and other infectious and chronic diseases.”
To see the recital, you make a gift (100 percent of which goes to GHESKIO), and a link is then sent to you that connects to a Vimeo of the performance. It is available for viewing through May 31 at gheskio.org “for a name-your-price donation.” Fortunately, once you’ve made the donation, you can view the video over and over, and even stop it periodically to think about what you’ve heard.
What will you hear?
From the first piano chords that Sullivan Fortner uses to introduce CMS’s three-part art song “Fog,” you know that you’re being ushered into a private world. In fact, one of his chords (13 seconds into the video) evokes the dream-space of Ran Blake, who owns that particular territory. “Fog” is a CMS poem set to music, and like all fine poetry, it resists simple summation. She takes the first part (about two and a half minutes) at a very slow pace, so that the first words, “Love appears just like the fog,” spool out over 34 seconds. If you don’t know the song already, it takes this long to get your footing on its subject matter, but it doesn’t unfold as you would expect. The second part brightens the pace but darkens the theme, and she takes a wry, Bob Dorough-ish approach to it, ushering in a minute-long solo by Fortner decorated with some of those Blakean dream chords. The third part starts immediately after the piano solo, and sets up a near-swing feel as CMS sing-speaks her way into it with a big smile that belies the “tears on my pillow” that are just a couple of lines away. As they get to the last line, “why try to catch a fog disappearing into the sky,” CMS and Fortner slow the pace and the song ends in the place it began. You can read the lyrics here.
“Fog” was originally recorded on For One to Love (Mack Avenue, 2015), CMS’s third CD. The other two songs have not appeared on commercial recordings, although some video performances of them are available on YouTube.
Second in this recital is CMS’s “Moon Song,” another love song with an unusual perspective. She is simply masterful here in giving perfect on-pitch expression to her own words, including some telling use of her eyes. A chill runs through you as you hear her words, “Let me love you as I love the moon,” because at that point she shifts the harmonies delicately, opening up the doors of the dream-world again. Fortner’s solo follows, with exactly the same shape as CMS’s statement. The last few moments stay in the dream, as CMS returns to emphasize the moon line once again.
Things brighten for the last item, “Doudou,” a song in French with an island (Haitian?) feel. But the lyric draws on a peculiar Brazilian sensibility, a sense that love can be fun — if it isn’t too much trouble. “Doudou” is a pet name for the singer’s lover, and its silliness suggests a pun on the word “dodo,” which is the same in English as it is in French … is the lover too dumb or too preoccupied to respond to the singer’s invitation? CMS gets the balance of moods just right, keeping the humor upfront on “trop joli pour moi” (too good-looking for me) and coloring the lyric with a little sadness on its mirror-image line “tant pis pour moi” (too bad for me). Fortner has an exuberant solo on this one, his best of the session.
With no CMS recording announced or on the horizon, this will have to do until the fog lifts. Did I wish for more? Yes — another interpretation of a neglected song from the classic American songbook, or another Bessie Smith tune, or maybe even something from Ma Rainey’s repertoire inspired by the film of August Wilson’s play … but these three are all we have for now.
CMS’s long-form work “Ogresse,” with an accompanying animated film, was announced before the pandemic began, with live performances scheduled in New York (with Darcy James Argue), Los Angeles (with the LA Phil), and San Francisco (sponsored by SFJAZZ), but everything other than a teaser trailer was canceled or postponed. Perhaps some visionary Boston institution may still have the chance to get on this boat before it sails.
CMS did another wonderful recital with Sullivan Fortner in 2018, which also began with “Fog.” It’s an NPR “Tiny Desk Concert.”
CMS’s first performance of “Doudou” took place in Marciac, France, in 2017, with Wynton Marsalis’s quintet. Fortunately, it was beautifully recorded, and the performance is viewable on YouTube.
Steve Elman’s more than four decades in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host on WBUR in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, 13 years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB.