Six Degrees of Cécile McLorin Salvant’s WomanChild

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 08.28.13 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Few modern jazz debuts have been as audacious and confident as 23-year-old singer Cécile McLorin Salvant's WomanChild. The climactic "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" builds, recedes and then builds some more, heading for the most dramatic high-note finish since Sir Richard Harris's "MacArthur Park." There are moments when it sounds like there are four or five singers trapped inside, fighting to come out at once. It's thrilling, and a little over the top. It'd be too much if she couldn't be subtle too, as on "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." McLorin Salvant slides around the beat, shading her timbre all sorts of ways: veiled one moment, barrel-chested the next, cool Jeanne Lee morphing into diva Sarah Vaughan. Her taste in material is offbeat too; the most recent non-original is Fats Waller's 1942 "Jitterbug Waltz," where the singer plays piano with some that old Harlem-rhythm feel; it speaks to her love of odd corners of jazz history. The oldest of several oldies is the man-versus-machine ballad "John Henry," where her usual pianist Aaron Diehl (fronting a crack trio) turns percussive prepared-piano effects into John Henry's hammers. The program is deep and wide, and good humored — WomanChild radiates smart energy.

The Voice Swung First

McLorin Salvant has an ear for overlooked tunes, and a couple seem to resonate on a personal level. Her father's from Haiti and her mother's people hail from Guadeloupe; the second-oldest oldie on WomanChild is 1906's "Nobody," by another African-American singer with Caribbean roots, Bahamas-born vaudeville and recording star Bert Williams. A master of muttered asides, he hugely influenced two more masters of same, W.C. Fields and singer/pianist Fats Waller, whose deflationary adlibs between lines of a lyric are pure Bert. (Ellington wrote him a tribute, and Louis Armstrong recreated a couple of his irreverent Elder Eatmore routines.) Williams's records were half-sung, half-spoken over a pocket ensemble, but his unerring, loosely conversational timing made him maybe the first real swinger on record. "Nobody" walks a comi-tragic line, a cry of pain from someone who'd be kind if only someone would be kind to them first. Williams's versions are wry, Nina Simone's was chilling; McLorin Salvant plays it more broadly, erupting into an oompah strut of defiance, and somehow pulls the joke off. Her taste gets her into and out of the same predicaments.

The Beast in Me

Cécile McLorin Salvant had a Parisian phase, where she began to shape her persona away from American ears. So did another singing instrumentalist with showstopping skills, singer/dancer Valaida Snow, a stage star from Chattanooga who played trumpet in a bravado style frankly modeled on Louis Armstrong's, toured the world and spent years in Shanghai in the 1920s. A war refugee in the '40s (who'd tell tall tales about being a concentration camp survivor), she ended her career making rhythm-and-blues records in the early '50s. Like McLorin Salvant, Snow had a wicked way of burrowing under a lyric's text. Valaida was in Paris when Josephine Baker's jungle goddess routine blew raspberries at noble savage stereotypes. In London in 1935 (where this collection was recorded over two years), Snow recorded the similarly cheeky "You Bring Out the Savage in Me." McLorin Salvant has a field day with that one, yodeling in ecstasy before Tarzan even turns up in the lyric. She makes that noble savage stuff sound quaintly ancient as heliocentrism.

Heart of the Matter

The Very Best Of

Bessie Smith

"St. Louis Gal" and "Baby Have Pity on Me" on WomanChild come from Bessie Smith, blues queen who helped jazz singing get started. She and Louis Armstrong were Billie Holiday's idols, and though Billie's vocal quality was very different, Bessie's plaintive from-the-heart quality came through. But after Holiday, Smith's direct influence waned, despite occasional tributes; smaller-voiced microphone crooners ruled. Whatever else she had, Bessie Smith had presence. She came up in the age before microphones, when you had to knock hats off in the back rows with lungpower alone, and keep listeners mesmerized when you lowered to a whisper. McLorin Salvant has that kind of authority. Not that she does either tune Bessie's way, substituting swing guitarist James Chirillo's stringing steel-string for stomp piano, adding a bluesy touch to songs that aren't technically blues; she streamlines the beat and reins in the volume. She doesn't always go to extremes.

Creative Anachronisms

Strictly Romancin\'

Catherine Russell

The great '30s ballads Cécile McLorin Salvant does, like "There's a Lull in My Life," still sound modern, but then jazz artists remake them all the time. Giving vintage material an old-time feeling, as McLorin Salvant does to those Bessie Smith tunes, you still have to modernize. If you're too faithful to the original, it'll sound corny or creaky. Catherine Russell, with her port-wine vocal timbre and easy swing, has been showing how it's done for years, and comes by her love of obscure oldies honestly. Louis Armstrong fronted her dad Luis Russell's big band in the 1930s; her mom was International Sweethearts of Rhythm bassist, Carline Ray, who sings with her daughter on the sanctified "He's All I Need." Most tunes on Strictly Romancin' come from the swing era, with a broadly jaunty beat that jumps all over the decades, from the '20s on ("Whatcha Gonna Do When There Ain't No Swing"). Russell's "Romance in the Dark" has more than a little of Aretha's "Spirit in the Dark" in it.

Contemporary Role Model

It's not all oldies on WomanChild; Cécile McLorin Salvant does two of her own, one a setting of a French poem by Haiti's Ida Flaubert. WomanChild's title track nods to McLorin Salvant's acknowledged inspiration as composer, socially conscious jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, who sang a bit in French herself. With a character sketch lyric, strong middle-register melody and a medium swing beat, "WomanChild" could be a Lincoln tune. Lincoln likewise liked hip and challenging young bands; on 1983's Talking to the Sun, the ringleader is alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, just before his celebrated M-Base collective came together. Four tunes are Lincoln's own: "The River," "People on the Street" and the title track. As a singer she painted with broad strokes, her timing and intonation loose but full of feeling. McLorin Salvant is far more gloriously precise, but then you don't have to sound like another artist to benefit from the influence.