While most vocalists make the mistake of either strictly adhering to the American Songbook or flailing away in improvisations, Cecile McLorin Salvant showed that it is possible to embrace both worlds of tradition and art as she deftly demonstrated at UCSB Campbell Hall Wednesday night.
Teamed up with her trio of Sullivan Fortner/p, Paul Sikivie/b and Lawrence Leathers/dr, Ms. Salvant mixed the earthy vibrancy of an Ethel Waters 78 rpm with the flexibility of an iphone 6. She could rear back to a field holler like “John Henry” with declaratory swoops, while turning her voice into a train whistle while bass and drums create a cable car percussive groove on an elastic “Trolly Song,” shifting gears like a 5 speed on San Francisco’s Lombard Street.
Salvant has a unique way of turning a song from a simple melody with rhythm into a audible painting, creating intricate textures not unlike a Monet as she goes from a swinging bop feel on “Nothing Like You” but yet twist and turn it into a taffy pull. Her talent for dynamics made her throw out lyrics like a slingshot on “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” whereas the pop 60s hit “Wives and Lovers” mixed prismatic harmonics with kinetic undercurrents by the rhythm team, with the opposing tensions creating an agonizingly glorious contrast.
Yet, when she went to the blues (and she returned to them frequently), her voice felt as at home as fried chicken with church picnics. She had a sonic twinkle in her eye as she mixed Fortner’s home parlor piano stylings with her own vaudevillian growl on “Sweet Jelly Roll” and delivered an earthy “Sam Jones Blues” that was fit for the pool hall, mixing sass with elegance.
By the time she completed her 90 minute set, her final piece summarized her sense of approach to jazz singing, emitting colors of indigo between solos on an evocative “Fine and Mellow.” Mellow in the sense of calming the soul, and fine in that each song was fine tuned with master brush strokes. Ms. Salvant and her trio took the audience through a rich gallery tour of well framed songs, performing as a jazz docent.
UCSB has already signed up Ms. Salvant for next year, so the upcoming season looks as promising as this one.