Cécile McLorin Salvant’s music is an act of defiant traditionalism, recreating and rearranging early 20th-century standards into her own style of blues and show tune-inflected jazz. Her updated versions of classic songs are never set in stone, but constantly changing to her whims and that of the musicians in her band. It’s a process of trial and error, of a contrast between an evolving stage show and a static recording for the archives.
Cécile McLorin Salvant graced Campbell Hall’s stage Thursday, April 27, for the final installment of UCSB’s Arts & Lectures’ series of jazz concerts for the 2015-2016 season. Her band consisted of vivacious pianist Sullivan Fortner, wisecracking stand up bassist Paul Sikivie, and the tumbling drums of Lawrence Leathers. Together, the group’s infectious warmth permeated the lofty atmosphere of the plus-sized lecture space.
Many of McLorin Salvant’s covers were originally sung by Bessie Smith, one of the most prominent jazz singers of the 20th century, who was even nicknamed “The Empress of the Blues.” She remains a substantial influence on jazz singers to this day. McLorin Salvant’s rendition of Smith’s “Outside of That,” a sarcastic testimonial of a woman stuck in a cycle of abuse, whose constant forgiveness of her lover’s violent slights, including “knocking out both of my teeth,” ventures into ridiculousness, was especially poignant. At times, when she described his transgressions, her voice would expand into a deep, Etta James-like operatic roar, belting, “I don’t want you no more/And when I said that, I made sweet papa so sore,” before quietening into a sweet, docile tone for, “Outside of that/He’s alright with me.” The chorus never failed to elicit laughs from the audience.
The song’s tongue-in-cheek approach to a topic as serious as domestic abuse aligns with McLorin Salvant’s philosophy regarding jazz. “I tend to process pain a lot with humor,” she said in an interview with The Santa Barbara Independent. “I think it’s a characteristic of jazz and of the blues that there is humor and lightness with these really dark and painful emotions.” Her original music is usually the product of sadness, and writing and performing serves as a way for her to “connect with emotion.” On the other hand, McLorin Salvant’s covers are not reflections of her emotions. Instead, they usually come out of extensive personal research into “different songs, different blues, and old songs, and things that haven’t been recorded a lot,” she explaine, along with specific singers, their influences, “and who was playing on this record, and then, ‘Oh! This song, nobody’s ever done this song, and it was recorded once. How is that?’”
McLorin Salvant’s set included originals too, like the song “Fog” from her 2015 album, For One to Love, which earned her this year’s Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. The tune is inspired by the beauty of San Francisco fog, and carries an awe-inspired lightness, along with a gear-kicking tempo change halfway through, that wouldn’t sound out of place in a downtown jazz club or a penguin tux charity gala. She croons about the freedom of loneliness, singing, “My world was very small when I had you,” and compares lost love to, “fog disappearing into sky,” over Fortner’s glistening piano.
Other songs she played included an ironic take on Burt Bacharach’s “Wives and Lovers,” which she said she is listed on Google as “top 10 most sexist songs of all time,” and featured a superb, rolling drum solo by Leathers, as well as a sinister take on Billie Holiday’s “You’re My Thrill.” Additionally, she played “The Trolley Song,” originally sung by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis, which sounded like a Vince Guaraldi tune, if Charlie Brown was caught up in a Great Gatsby-style drag race.
Throughout the night, McLorin Salvant and her band played music that highlighted jazz’s freeing contradiction as a serious and technical, lighthearted and silly genre, and managed to come off as formidably talented without taking themselves too seriously.