What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Cécile McLorin Salvant - The Sound of Surprise

Interpretation of the great American Songbook is overdue for major renovation. I know just the singer for the job. Her name is Cécile McLorin Salvant. I first learned about her in a “Goings On About Town” note on Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” series: “The swinging singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, who has a vocal warmth to match her rhythmic ease, is a vibrant neo-traditionalist who makes the old new again” (“Jazz and Standards,” The New Yorker, February 4, 2013). Not recognizing the name, I went to iTunes to see if there were any samples of her work. I found a 2010 album called Cécile, containing ten songs. I decided to buy it. I’ve been listening to it ever since. Whoever wrote that anonymous New Yorker blurb knows what he/she is talking about. “Swinging” is exactly the right word to describe Salvant’s singing, along with “delightful,” “inventive,” “agile,” “rangy,” “magnetic,” “calm,” and “assured.” Her rhythms and inflections and accents change continually. Her voice seems capable of endless colors and timbres. Her dynamics are consummate. On Cécile, she sings an exquisite version of Gigi Gryce’s “Social Call.” Ben Ratliff, reviewing her performance at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, says, “She radiates authority” (“A Young Vocalist Tweaks Expectations,” The New York Times, November 2, 2012). Ratliff’s piece is illustrated with a video of Salvant singing Richard Rodgers’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” What a mesmerizing rendition! She perfectly expresses that great song’s mysterioso quality. There’s a fascinating YouTube video of her singing Harry Warren’s “I Only Have Eyes For You” in which she repeats “disappear,” in the line “You are here, so am I / Maybe millions of people go by / But they all disappear from view / And I only have eyes for you,” an astounding eight times. It’s an amazing interpretation. Salvant’s singing has what Whitney Balliett identified as jazz’s defining characteristic – the sound of surprise. 

Credit: The above photograph of Cécile McLorin Salvant is by Tony Cenicola; it appears in The New York Times (November 2, 2012), as an illustration for Ben Ratliff's A Young Vocalist Tweaks Expectations.

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