Cécile McLorin Salvant
Cécile McLorin Salvant performs at SFJAZZ Center | Credit: Rick Swig

On March 11, 2020, Cécile McLorin Salvant was in the midst of the soundcheck for the West Coast premiere of her chamber orchestra jazz song cycle Ogresse at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre when Alameda County’s ban on large gatherings led SFJAZZ to cancel the performance. A week later, she livestreamed a duo living room concert with New Orleans-reared pianist Sullivan Fortner from her Harlem apartment, providing an oasis of beauty in those deeply unsettled and uncertain early days of the lockdown. The dozens of livestreamed concerts I watched in the succeeding months provided essential sustenance during those months without in-person music, but none provided a balm as potent and miraculous as Salvant’s.

Her four-night run at the SFJAZZ Center last week marked her first return to Bay Area since the ill-fated Ogresse production, and Friday’s concert, which was also livestreamed as part of SFJAZZ’s Fridays Live series, didn’t feel so much like the completion of a circle as an astonishing response to the roiling emotional landscape we’ve been traversing for two years. Art songs and cabaret, folk music and Broadway show tunes, originals and Brazilian standards are all grist for the mill of her ferocious jazz intelligence.

Cécile McLorin Salvant
Cécile McLorin Salvant performs at SFJAZZ Center | Credit: Rick Swig

Salvant continues to wear her influences lightly as her sumptuous voice takes on shades of Sarah Vaughan and early Betty Carter. But her sound is sui generis, and each song she inhabited left the impression she could create a riveting set focusing exclusively on that tradition. Taken at a breakneck tempo, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s “Some People” was so fierce it was impossible not to hope some smart composer is writing a musical for her.

She performed several pieces from Ghost Song, her upcoming Nonesuch Records debut out on March 4, including Sting’s lovely ballad “Until” from the film Kate & Leopold. An extended medley from Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s Wizard of Oz score, starting with the nonpareil verse for “Over the Rainbow,” moved through an antic arrangement of “If Only I Had a Brain,” with Fortner playing double time behind her. Did I mention there was no sheet music onstage, and that she reconfigured arrangements on the fly?  

Salvant didn’t just introduce her band. She made her appreciation for her co-conspirators evident by dedicating a number to each player. Alexa Tarantino, better known as an alto saxophonist, served as lustrous foil for Salvant on flutes (particularly alto flute), and percussionist Keita Ogawa provided grooves, textures, and some low-end support with his versatile rig, which conjured cadences of South Indian clay drums and Afro-Peruvian cajón.

The unusual instrumental configuration could have thrown the balance of her arrangements out of whack, but instead she seemed to revel in the spacious sonic mix. In fact, when her SFJAZZ engagement was announced months ago she was billed with a quintet, but guitarist Marvin Sewell was a last-minute cancellation. His telegraphic folk/blues-inflected palette played an essential role in Cassandra Wilson’s transition from MBASE funk to spooky Delta soundscapes. Salvant’s music was so richly imagined with the quartet it’s hard to imagine where he would have fit, but that’s jazz’s beguiling alchemy. Add or subtract one player and the whole equation can radically shift.

The concert’s centerpiece, the supernova that scorched the room, was her terrifying rendition of Kurt Weill and Marc Blitzstein’s “Pirate Jenny.” Somewhere, Bertolt Brecht was nodding to himself in approval as Salvant personified eliminationist proletarian rage, putting her tormentors to the sword with a self-satisfying little smile. Yikes.

Called back for an encore, Salvant and the band offered a gentle benediction with a melancholic but comforting original as Tarantino and Ogawa joined on vocal harmonies, chanting “I’ll live with the ghost of our love.” Returning to the stage for a second bow by herself, Salvant once again radically realigned the hall’s molecules.

Most performers send their audiences home with an affectionate hug, a pinch of fairy dust to carry out into the ordinary night. Salvant grabbed us by the throat with an a cappella rendition of the oft-interpreted murder ballad “Omie Wise” (also known as “Naomi Wise”), delivered with a relentless bagpipe wail. Fascinated by extremes, drawn to monsters, outcasts, and ne’er do wells, Salvant finds beauty everywhere. 

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