Cécile McLorin Salvant, 32, has said that she wants her music to be like opening a diary. When I saw her perform at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center, she knew where the bodies were buried. And maybe it wasn’t just her diary. It could have been ours, too. I thought of evenings with Betty Carter or Abbey Lincoln, where the last-call sets felt as if they were singing right to every weirdo in the room, and I was one of them.
Because Salvant is a jazz singer, you can hear the influence of Carter, and of Sarah Vaughan, in her phrasing, her intonation, the way she floats around a lyric. Some of her staples are revivals. When she growls and belts “Sam Jones’ Blues” or “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” you are transported from the 2020s to the 1920s and back again. The songs are still alive—fecund, witty, taking revenge, celebratory—and somewhere Bessie Smith is vindicated. Salvant loves sinking her teeth into Brecht and Weill, songs such as “The World Is Mean,” from The Threepenny Opera: “Of course I’m telling you the truth / The world is mean and man uncouth.” She doesn’t sugarcoat it.
“They say as a child I appeared a little bit wild / With all my crazy ideas / But I knew what was happenin’, I knew I was a genius,” wrote the great vocalese lyricist Annie Rossin in the song “Twisted.” Salvant, too, knows she’s a genius—the MacArthur Foundation said so a couple of years ago. But she’s also a wild child. That’s what her diary is all about.
Ghost Song, Salvant’s latest album, has an original song, “I Lost My Mind,” that begins like a jazz standard and turns into something that sounds more like Laurie Anderson than Billie Holiday. It announces, in a harmonized chant, “I lost my mind / Can you help me find my mind?” and is set against a creepy pipe organ and Salvant’s own wails and cries. You can’t say she didn’t warn us. “I will dance with the ghost of our love / I will dance with the ghost of our long-lost love,” she sings on Ghost Song’s title track, as haunted as she is haunting.
These songs, along with a cover of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” don’t even sound like jazz. They’re more like art songs for the new 20s. “You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night,” she sings from “Optimistic Voices,” the surreal Harburg-Arlen gem from The Wizard of Oz. Maybe, but don’t get too comfortable. The song turns into something else before it’s done.
When Salvant plays the Blue Note, in New York, from September 20 to 25, expect old standards and new revelations. It’s a small enough room—the room where I had those last-call nights with Carter and Lincoln—that she might look right through you. You will recognize something, in her, in yourself, and it could hit you hard. But then she knew she was a genius.
Ghost Song is out now
Cécile McLorin Salvant will perform at the Blue Note, in New York, from September 20 through September 25
David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He writes about music and is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. You can read his Substack here