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Pitchfork: Cécile McLorin Salvant - Dreams and Daggers

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The young jazz singer’s live double album showcases the gravitas, humor, and modernity she brings both to classic standards and her own compositions.

At just 28, jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant has already been lauded by the music industry, including its figurehead Wynton Marsalis, who said that a singer of her caliber only comes by “once in a generation or two.” To be positioned among the ranks of Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, and Nina Simone—artists who place greater emphasis on telling a story that is universal over technical skill or prowess—takes gravitas, having a sharp wit about her and an old soul. Judging from the complex range and emotional heft that Salvant delivers on Dreams and Daggers, she has lives of experience already under her belt.

As a singer and composer, Salvant has always been comfortably nestled between a bygone era and the present day. This plays well to her strengths on her new double live album as she reimagines the work of Loesser, Rodgers, and Hart for today’s audiences. Salvant returns us to “simpler” times, when just a singer and her acoustic band could command no less than your full and undivided attention and, more importantly, when there were lyrics that implored you to utilize all of your senses in order to feel no less than the gamut of human emotion.

With a Best Jazz Vocal Grammy already on her mantle for her third album, 2015’s For One to Love, the Miami-born French-Haitian singer returns to us a little wiser, taking a deeper dive into the material she’s become known for. It is by far the boldest move of her career, one that pays off handsomely. On Dreams and Daggers, Salvant combines the well-known standards she’s already cut her teeth on (notably, her breakout version of the 1939 classic “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”) with new original songs that explore love in all of its murkiness and splendor. It marks the coming of age for an assured young woman and artist who cradles every song with nurturing hands, full of caution and warmth.

“You’re My Thrill” pinpoints the moment when love is at its most abundant, as suggested by the bountiful spread of fish, assorted vegetables and exotic fruits laid out before us in the track’s accompanying video. Salvant’s delicate phrasing reveals her penchant for drama on the 1933 standard. Though evocative of the version made famous by Billie Holiday, it is still rooted in the present, thanks in part to its revamped, tension-filled string arrangement, courtesy of bassist Paul Sikivie. Her clever reworking of Nöel Coward’s “Mad About the Boy” also reveals her talent for reinterpretation, the way that she fully embraces a standard, like wearing the clothes of an old lover. As pianist Aaron Diehl lurks about, establishing the dark mood with a spare refrain, the ominous tone becomes wonderfully juxtaposed against Coward’s song of infatuation. Salvant takes full advantage of that fact as she rather unexpectedly, and angrily, belts out “Mad! It’s pretty funny... but I’m mad,” forewarning us all on how often infatuation can border on insanity and obsession.

Incorporating the blues into her live repertoire, especially one that consists mainly of standards, shows off Salvant’s expansive musical pedigree while paying homage to the earliest known feminists who unapologetically sang of love’s many trials and tribulations. On “Sam Jones’ Blues,” in the span of three-minutes, Salvant unleashes her “alter ego,” one who is brazen and revels in the bawdiness of the little known Bessie Smith tune: “You ain’t talkin’ to Mrs. Jones/You speakin’ to Miss Wilson now!” Though it marks a distinct departure from her pointed yet articulate and intimate phrasing, on the live album, Salvant wisely forgoes complete emulation. Instead, she finds deeper meaning, playing with the candor and suggestiveness of the music of Smith and Ida Cox, tapping into yet another facet of her vast range and personality as a vocalist.

Recorded live at New York’s renowned Village Vanguard just a year ago with her bandmates Diehl, Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers, Salvant also incorporates new original music on the set. To juxtapose newer compositions against what many consider to be part of the Great American Songbook is indeed a high-wire act, especially when jazz standards continue to outsell newer works. But given our current climate, thankfully, we are now seeing a resurgence in artists who are pushing the boundaries of how jazz can evolve and still have great relevance in the 21st century. On songs like “More” and “The Worm,” Salvant asserts her own thoughts on love (“Do you love me? Do you think I’m pretty?”) not as an authority on the subject, but rather ensuring that her opinions are valid and are part of the ongoing conversation.

Much of how we operate today encourages that we further desensitize and distance ourselves from anything (and anyone) that can potentially disappoint or hurt us. But where does it end? That’s perhaps one of chief questions raised by this ambitious effort—how can our humanity continue to thrive and flourish without love? As she reimagines the through line of modern-day romance and heartache in jazz, Salvant is at her most versatile and expressive on Dreams and Daggers, choosing songs that wholly capture and embrace the full spectrum that is love—from the initial yearning to the relentless ache and betrayal.


Read the full piece from: Pitchfork

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