Cecile McLorin Salvant casts a spell of love at the Jazz Fest

Cecile McLorin Salvant held her audience in the palm of her hand with her phenomenal artistry.

Cecile McLorin Salvant

On rare occasions, concert-goers are treated to an experience that transcends musical communication and approaches something more like musical communion. Saturday night’s performance by Cecile McLorin Salvant fell into the latter category.

The second she walked onto the stage at the Monument-National, McLorin Salvant radiated love. From the instant she intoned the opening lyrics of her first song, Fog—“love appeared”—she held the audience in the palm of her hand.

In Fog, love is an evanescent mist that disappears back into the sky. In most of the songs that followed, love appears in all its multifarious incarnations and incantations: shrouded in metaphorical clouds in Thunderclouds; eclipsed by guilt and resentment in Obligation; lost to another woman in Left Over; shattered by a dragon in Fenestra; withheld, except perhaps for the wrong man, in Kurt Weill’s Barbara’s Song; over, in Ghost Song.

McLorin Salvant’s voice is perfectly suited to capturing every nuance, every surprise, positive or negative, every subtle inflection that love in all its variety brings to our lives. Just like love, her voice touches the lowest lows and the most stratospheric highs, sometimes within the same breath. She brings a huge range of vocal styles to the stage, from jazz and pop to musical theatre to folkloric song and chant. Being able to draw on such a diversity of styles allows her to walk that fine artistic line between direct communication and ethereal evocation. Indeed, with her wildly talented band (more about them in a moment), she conveyed the amorphous, inner, subconscious state of feeling described by the words.

For example, in Obligation, a song in which she explores the idea that in a romantic relationship, expectations only lead to broken promises and resentments, she sang in a very direct, often humourous manner. And who hasn’t been there? Who wouldn’t giggle guiltily with recognition upon hearing the phrase “I could love you if only it could stop your weeping,” or “I’d let you touch me if only it would stop your pushing.” The music, on the other hand, managed to recreate the inner chaos and discord that you experience when you find yourself trapped in such a relationship, unsure how to navigate your way, or the other person’s way, out of it. Drawing on free improv and incredible powers of communication, the band perfectly creates the state of mind that the words imply.

One of the many highlights of the evening was Mista, a Dianne Reeves song about someone who refuses to see the wonders of the universe and instead wallows in negativity. The extended musical breaks, with their rhythmic drive and energy, served to communicate the frustration and urgency of the message: “It ain’t too late to change your life.”

McLorin Salvant’s band provided a perfect complement to her musical vision. This was especially true for her pianist, Sullivan Fortner, with whom she seems to have a symbiotic relationship, and whose mastery at the keyboard is hard to overstate. Equally impressive was the percussionist, Keita Ogawa, whose range of non-traditional drums (in addition to the drum kit of course) further enhanced the many and varied nuances of each song. The bassist had a chance to shine during his solo on Until, and the slide guitar work on Ghost Song was particularly gorgeous. But the way they all worked as a whole was even greater than the sum of their individual parts.

The audience erupted after each number, and gave her a standing ovation at the end, which brought her out for two encores. The first was a Kate Bush medley, beginning with a cover of Wuthering Heights that is still—no exaggeration—giving me goosebumps and bringing tears to my eyes. It started with a ghostly incantation, reminiscent of both chant and Gaelic folksong: the cold ghost of Cathy calling to Heathcliff to let her in. The song morphed into a cover of Bush’s Breathing, in which we couldn’t help but be reminded that all life, expression, song, communication, comes from the breath: in, out, in, out.

For her second encore, the band acquiesced to the audience’s demand to hear The Peacocks, after which, with great reluctance, the audience accepted that the show was over.

Quick shout-out to the opening act, the trio Gentiane MG. Playing original compositions that are highly evocative and rhythmically and harmonically complex, they succeeded in bringing the audience into their tightly-knit musical world. Gentiane MG, on piano, had a great rapport with the audience, who appreciated the trio’s eclectic and experimental sound. Definitely worth checking out.

Cecile McLorin Salvant played at the Monument-National Saturday 2 July at 8pm as part of the FIJM.