Tradition Honored and Refreshed: Cecile McLorin Salvant, WomanChild

By Daniel Garrett

Cecile McLorin Salvant, WomanChild
Al Pryor, Producer
Gretchen Valade, Executive Producer
Mack Avenue, 2013

With a great, curling voice, Cecile McLorin Salvant sings the sultry song of a stolen man and a subsequent threat of violence, “St. Louis Gal.”  It is almost funny to realize that this old song’s tough attitude remains contemporary.  The singer’s rich voice delivers the Rodgers and Hart standard “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” making it a piece of elastic, firm, sweet, sensual tautly crisp instrumental jazz.   The singer’s diction, inflections, and tone are fine in “Nobody,” written by Bert Williams and Alex Rogers, a song of hard times and loneliness (there’s self-awareness and rebellion in the lyrics).  The title song, Salvant’s “WomanChild,” is a rambling song with singing and humming about the importance of support for a girl—and, with the way Salvant stretches and flattens certain notes, it reminds me a little of Abbey Lincoln, of her writing and her singing.   Great things are expected of Cecile McLorin Salvant, a singer and songwriter, and the winner of the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition; and on WomanChild, accompanied by pianist Aaron Diehl, drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Rodney Whitaker, and guitarist James Chirillo, Cecile McLorin Salvant has begun to prove that faith deserved.

There is even a French language Salvant song on the album: “Le Front Cache Sur Tes Genoux,” based on a poem by Haitian poet Ida Salomon Faubert, who lived in France.  Then in “Prelude/There’s a Lull in My Life,” the prelude is like twilight; slow, speculative, twinkling; and the connecting piece is something of a ‘man as center of my world’ song, with the recurring iteration, “There is a lull in my life, the moment that you go away.”   Intense and funny, with a whole lot of attitude, is “You Bring Out the Savage In Me,” supported by percussive drama.  That song used to be performed by the legendary Valaida Snow, a singer and trumpeter.  Salvant’s sultry “Baby Have Pity on Me,” written by Clarence Williams and Billy Mol, is a sensual entreaty.  “John Henry” is plain, soulful, the man versus machine song is given a fast, spare rhythm, achieving something akin to classical minimalism.   Salvant’s large voice is able to be both warm and piercing in “Jitterbug Waltz,” and the singer creates and resolves tension with her phrasing and pacing.  Full of diverse, even experimental, embellishments is “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” a piece of energy and whimsicality, with its wailing opening, and staccato chanting near the end.  In Salvant’s “Deep Dark Blue” low, heavy long notes create drama.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.