The leader of a new pack of fully modern jazz singers explores the historical context and modern possibilities of every song she sings, even the deepest American standards.
When the jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant sings “Somewhere” on her fifth album, The Window, she approaches the American standard with complete knowledge of its monumental past—and its possibilities in the present. Over 60 years after its debut as a central number in West Side Story, “Somewhere” stands among the last century’s most-covered numbers, as one generation after another finds beauty to its promise of a place where they might fit in. So how does an artist in 2018 make “Somewhere” sound new? That’s the question Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner pose. After Fortner sneaks a few bustling bars of West Side Story’s “America” into the intro (a wink to the crowd at New York’s Village Vanguard, where this cover and another quarter of the album were recorded), the pair interrogate the tune and its guarantee of a safe haven.
Arguably the leader in a resurgent scene of fully modern jazz singers, Salvant makes great tonal leaps throughout “Somewhere.” She sounds playful at the beginning, as though acknowledging the convention of past jazz masters interpreting it. But soon, she sings those two syllables like they’re a grim punchline. Near the end, she imbues it with the melancholy of a daydream she knows will never come true. Salvant understands the song as quintessentially American, an aspirational immigrant tune—“Somewhere… we’ll find a new way of living.” To make it sound relevant for our moment, she introduces the idea that “somewhere” might actually be anywhere but here.
Among Salvant’s most distinguishing artistic traits is how she makes those tonal shifts not just exciting but meaningful. Her craft is undeniable, but built into her craft is the freshness of encountering each tune as though for the first time, figuring it out in the moment from one note to the next. She sings in conversation with every song, its lyrics, and its historical context. Salvant accomplishes that not only by using her voice to comment on lyrics while she delivers them but also by developing a diverse, daring repertoire. On The Window, she sings French cabaret, American showtunes, pop standards, and deep soul and blues cuts. She covers Nat King Cole and Brazilian songwriter Dori Caymmi, Cole Porter and jump blues pianist Buddy Johnson. She savors the spaces between styles, between lines, between notes.
Take The Window’s first two tracks. Salvant opens with a gently psychedelic cover of “Visions,” from Stevie Wonder’s 1973 album, Innervisions. Fortner introduces the song with a set of vertiginous piano chords, as though leading us down a dark staircase into a basement nightclub. Salvant remains on the street, dreaming of a place—another somewhere—where “hate’s a dream and love forever stands…. Or is this a vision in my mind?” She never answers the question, but her voice has the steadiness of someone who wants to believe. Salvant follows it with “One Step Ahead,” a love song from an early Aretha Franklin record. The shift from social issues to romantic maneuvering seems jarring at first. But Salvant finds new implications in the song, not only by increasing the tempo to a full sprint but by placing it in the new context of this moment in American history. “I’m only one step ahead of heartbreak, one step ahead of misery,” she sings with an almost frantic determination.
Salvant has found a fine match in Fortner, a New Orleans native who has played with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, John Scofield, and Paul Simon. He doesn’t accompany her so much as join in the conversation she’s having with these songs, occasionally even arguing with her about them. He toggles between the blues and jazz and classical figures with dizzying fluidity during “I’ve Got Your Number,” while his tectonic bass chords for “By Myself” make it seem like the ground is constantly shifting beneath Salvant. And when it comes to songs, it is: Salvant sings with the understanding that no tune is ever set in stone, even one as frequently sung as “Somewhere.” On The Window, she excels at keeping every possibility open all at once.
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