News Column

McLorin Salvant shows range in S.F. debut

June 21, 2013


June 21--When Cecile McLorin Salvant came out of nowhere to win the Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition in 2010, people wanted to know who she was and where she came from.

Now they just want to know where she's going next so they can go along for the ride.

The young Miami-born singer made her Bay Area debut Wednesday night before a rapt, sold-out crowd at SFJazz and delivered a master class in multi-octave jazz vocals.

The two-hour-plus concert made it clear McLorin Salvant is a singular talent with jaw-dropping vocal chops. When she sings low, she gets compared to Sassy Sarah. When she sings high, she's likened to Lady Day. And when she sings a dirty blues as she did in the second part of her show, she pays homage to the great Bessie Smith -- not by imitating her, but by offering her own mesmerizing take on a little ditty whose title almost says it all: "You Gotta Gimmie Some." (In truth, the title only begins to hint at the carnal double entendres of the song's lyrics.)

Filled with wonder

She opened her set with the title song of her smashing debut CD, "WomanChild," on Mack Avenue. Wearing a high-waisted red summer-weight dress, her eyes wide with wonder behind white-framed glasses, she seemed to physically embody the title of her song. "How can they expect a girl to walk in stride?" she sang, her voice fluttering to the highest octaves before swooping to a darkly ominous contralto.

The set list included the old folk song "John Henry"; the show tune from "Finian's Rainbow," "If This Isn't Love"; the sardonic "Nobody" by Bert Williams, the great African American comic who wore blackface makeup back in the early years of the last century; "It Ain't Necessarily So" from "Porgy and Bess"; some Gershwin, some Jerome Kern, some Cole Porter and some McLorin Salvant, including, in French, "Le Front Cache sur tes Genoux," which she composed for the Ida Faubert poem "Rondel."

Eclectic tastes

The partial list tells you two things: that McLorin Salvant has broad and eclectic taste in music and that she honors music of every era. But it doesn't begin to tell you what she does with every song she sings. Using that insanely pliant voice, she deconstructs every tune and then puts it all back together again in a way that retains some sense of familiarity, while becoming entirely new and fresh at the same time.

Again and again, she proved that this isn't something she does just because she's talented enough to do it. Rather, this is what she does in order to make the song her own story for that moment.

She inhabits these songs, moves in on her own artistic terms, finds surprising nuances of new meaning in the most familiar lyrics. We thrill to her ability to zip up and down octaves without breaking a metaphorical sweat. But as we are irresistibly captured by the technical artistry of her vocals, we are hearing the story of each song as if for the first time.

Her trio included pianist Aaron Diehl, drummer Rodney Green, and on standup bass, Paul Sikivie -- each a virtuoso and McLorin Salvant made sure the instrumentalists got a lot of time in the spotlight throughout the show.

But Diehl has to be singled out as one of the most stunning young pianists I've heard in years. No human's fingers could possibly move as quickly and precisely over the keyboard as Diehl's did. He gave the Steinway grand a workout with glittering arpeggios contrasted with near silent moments of pianissimo lyricism.

In the group's encore, he let loose with an insane riff in the middle of the Billie Holiday staple "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" that seemed about ready to set the keys ablaze.

To point out the obvious, McLorin Salvant and Diehl are very young. He's a 2007 graduate of Juilliard, and she's all of 23. They both perform vintage material with the kind of energy and excitement that young artists often display, but never in a negatively iconoclastic way: They put their own spin on music of the past, but they do it in a way that comes entirely from love and respect.

Wednesday's concert is sure to be long remembered by those who heard it. But it may also be remembered by those who missed it but have heard about it by now and can't wait for McLorin Salvant to swing back into town. Make it soon.

David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV


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