Even AMBER alerts blaring from various phones in the audience could not stop the magic that was Cecille McLorin Salvant.
Salvant — a composer, singer and visual artist — performed soulful jazz and blues Saturday night with bandmates Sullivan Fortner, on piano; Marvin Sewell, on guitar; Alexa Tarantino, on flute and Keita Ogawa, on percussion. The combo performed numbers from her rhapsodic Nonesuch Records debut album, “Ghost Song,” which was funded with a MacArthur Fellowship and created during the early days of the pandemic. In fact, Salvant’s was the first Stanford Live show to be canceled when the pandemic began, as her original performance was supposed to be in March 2020.
Saturday’s show also featured covers of other works that embraced her wide repertoire in genre. Complete with a spotlight that put the performers into focus and colorful lights patterning the curtain backdrop, Salvant’s jazz and blue band is one of my favorites in the space to date.
There was so much space for the musicians to tinker, fiddle and strum their instruments. That isn’t to say that they stole the show; Salvant’s radiance and warmth reached me across several rows, and her vocal range allowed her to sustain and belt high and low notes. Still, the instrumentalists had the space to improvise and control the style of each song.
Their playing set the tone before Salvant walked on stage, and she carried the tune immediately when she landed in place and began singing the opening song, “Wild is Love.” My favorite part of this act was the flute solo that, while slithering through the different melodies, breached the texture and stood proud for several minutes without vocals.
Other songs brought out the theatricality of performance. Salvant switched it up with two covers of songs from musicals: “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” from “Annie Get Your Gun,” and “Ain’t Got No,” from “Hair.” Some sounds even reminded me of “The Great Comet of 1812,” with short-note choruses and experimentation with the vocal range. Salvant succeeded in hitting high operatic notes with mesmerizing ease.
As a fan of musical theater, I was intrigued to see traditional Broadway set to a different genre. These acts in particular showcased Salvant’s and the band’s versatility in creating captivating compositions. For instance, “Ain’t Got No” has an up-tempo pace and electronic instrumentals in the Broadway cast recording. In Salvant’s live rendition, the guitar stood out, creating a softer acoustic feel.
Some of the songs were funny, sweet and short, such as “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine,” which is a type of song I normally don’t expect when I go to concerts, much less as a separate act. Yet it still earned its applause.
Despite the comedic lyrics, the group maintained its artistic integrity. This was not merely a stand-up gig with jazz music in the back. For instance, the rhythm of the text in “Obligations” — which discussed a relationship that turns toxic — realistically captured the cadence of a thought process. The constant shift in speed and different rhymes were entertaining, with lyrics like “What happens when the foundation of a sexual encounter is guilt, not desire? / Obligation / Promises lead to resentment.” Here, Salvant would hold the note on or exaggerate her pronunciation of the word “sexual.”
The show really tied itself together in musical range, from intense, percussion-heavy moments to sweet ballads. “Ghost Song,” “DouDou,” (which, Salvant explained, translates to “sweetheart” from French) and the two encore pieces (“Moon Song” and a cover of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”) are examples of what softer jazz tones Salvant is capable of.
Ultimately, Salvant was able to showcase an array of songs that presented her and the band in the best possible light, wherein they each had the opportunity to explore their skills yet work together to create a stunning experience.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.