This Valentine’s Day, Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall was graced by the presence of singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, whose unique talent is resurrecting the art of jazz in the 21st century. Announced from the stage, Salvant presented a program that refreshingly broke from the traditional collection of love songs expected on this day. Spanning genres, eras and emotions, Salvant sang jazz standards like “I Only Have Eyes for You”, excerpts from musical productions such as the “Step Sister’s Lament” from Cinderella, the soundtrack from a 1928 silent film “Laugh Clown Laugh.” It quickly became clear that one should not attempt to guess what was coming next.
With Salvant, that unpredictability is a hallmark. She began her study of jazz while spending time in the South of France at age 18. She had always sung opera, but jazz? Not until she was stopped in the street by an elderly saxophone player who insisted that she join a jam session he was hosting that evening. This man would become her only jazz teacher. A mere five years later, at age 23, Salvant was the first-prize recipient of the Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition. One might think this recognition would render the recipient a pompous diva. The opposite is true with Salvant.
Her humility was palpable from the moment she entered the stage, last in line behind the drummer, pianist, and bassist. She moved slowly, hands clasped across a full-throated red dress, manner unassuming yet elegant. Immediately, it was clear that Salvant was savoring every moment, and the audience followed her lead. She spent the majority of the concert facing away from us. The music moved her, sometimes out of the circle of light, inside which every performer is taught one must stay in order to retain the attention of the audience. But these antiquated rules of success do not apply to Salvant. She is comfortable in that darkness and will leave the light whenever she feels so inclined without being lost from view or forgotten by the audience.
Salvant’s unpredictability is the underpinning to her uniqueness. It seems that a range of ages exists in her body, summoned effortlessly and immediately when called upon. At times, Salvant embodied a young girl, voice high and airy as if floating above the auditorium as in “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, the timeless classic Salvant proclaimed as “my favorite, favorite, favorite, favorite”. A millisecond later, the depth of tone and wisdom found only in an 80-year old sage would emerge, octaves below what could be dreamed possible from her previous tone. And no air existed between these monumental peaks and troughs. Transitions were breathless, pure and smooth.
A very unique piece in the program was “You Bring Out the Savage in Me”, made famous in the 1930s. With lyrics that once must have shocked listeners, this piece viscerally showcased Salvant’s vocal depth, but through her trademark subtlety. The centerpiece of the song was a mesmerizing solo by the drummer, Pete Van Nostrand, involving every surface offered by the instrument. It must be noted that Salvant’s other two band members, bassist Paul Siviki and pianist Aaron Diehl, were also phenomenal. They possessed the true mark of excellence— you did not notice them when Salvant sang, but their solos were completely mesmerizing.
The pinnacle of the evening was Salvant’s rendition of Billie Holiday’s classic, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”. It was almost impossible to link this musical innovation to its original fast-paced jingle. She began the piece with a chill-inducing series of oohs in the high register of her voice that automatically fills the listener with memories. She slid into the recognizable melody for intervals only long enough to remind the listener of the song’s roots. But no one was complaining, the audience would have happily followed her voice on whatever path she embarked and this song was no exception.
A standing ovation followed Salvant off the stage, pleading for more. Her single encore was dedicated to every audience member currently without a Valentine, the announcement of which received bemused (and perhaps appreciative) laughter. When Salvant began the immediately recognizable strands of Somewhere from Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s West Side Story, the audience released an energy that could be felt. Longing, memories, expectant, innocent, appreciative— the emotions evoked by her incredible talent are innumerable. This is a singer I will proudly tell my grandchildren that I got the chance to see performing live at the start of her career.
Contact Elizabeth Woodson at ewoodson “at” stanford.edu.