Acclaimed vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant was raised in Miami as the American-born daughter of a French school principal mother and a Haitian doctor father. She began piano studies at age five, and started singing in the Miami Choral Society at eight.
Salvant moved to France in 2007 to study classical and baroque singing at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory. It is there that she began to sing jazz professionally. She recorded her debut album, Cécile, in Paris, with Jean-François Bonnel’s Paris Quintet, in 2010. She moved back home to the United States after that album, and entered and won the prestigious Thelonious Monk competition. She released a second album, WomanChild, to critical acclaim in 2013.
Her newest release, For One To Love, is her finest yet. It is an album of twelve songs, five written by Cécile, and seven standards that she is interpreting. The entire band’s performance makes this album phenomenal. The group is made of Aaron Diehl on piano, Paul Sikivie on bass, and Lawrence Leathers on drums. Leathers is a highlight on most of the songs. His drumming is, in one word, beautiful. He is a standout on “Something’s Coming.” Neither Sikivie nor Leathers were on WomanChild, and their playing has made this album that much more impressive.
For One To Love’s cover is an almost cubist red, white, and black image of a woman crying through a closed eyelid, while smiling. It looks like the sort of portrait that Pablo Picasso may have quickly drawn for an artist friend’s album.
The album starts out experimentally, with the ambitious song “Fog” by Salvant. “Love appears / just like / a fog,” she sings. Diehl plays the piano extremely well on the song. Despite this being Salvant’s album, Diehl is the most impressive element in “Fog” from start to finish.
“Fog” is followed by “Growlin’ Dan,” written by Cab Calloway’s sister Blanche. In it we hear a fun and theatrical Salvant. She brings in humor, incredible vocals, and changes to the color of her voice that make “Growlin’ Dan” interesting from start to finish. Diehl’s piano playing is once again phenomenal. Salvant’s brutal growls bring an edge.
Salvant’s vocals remind me of the pop era, before the advent of rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll. For One To Love is often intensely theatrical. Most of the songs are also very demanding. She sings images like “clang clang clang / went the trolley’” on “The Trolley Song” that require the same amount of attention from the listener as watching a Broadway show.
Salvant’s version of Burt Bacharach’s “Wives and Lovers” is not an easy listen. It either feels kitschy or, if listened to closely, like an unpleasant aspect of society that we have rightfully left behind. The song’s lyrics predate contemporary feminism and Salvant’s singing in character exacerbates one’s unease. But she might be mocking the song.
If there is any social concern intended with these songs, it isn’t even felt as subtext. The album can be summed up as the theatrical reinterpretation of old songs by a phenomenal singer and band.
The album’s highlights are the ambitious “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, “Growlin’ Dan,” “What’s the Matter Now?”—popularized by Bessie Smith—“Left Over,” written by Cécile, and the laugh-out-loud “Stepsister’s Lament,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The album includes one French song, “Le Mal de Vivre,” by the singer Barbara (Monique Andrée Serf).
On all of the songs, Salvant has space to sing but Diehl is the more melodic one. It is a sentimental album, but the sentimental one is Diehl; at times, it sounds like it is his album. What we feel the most while listening to Salvant’s album is Diehl’s playing.
For One To Love is very well produced by Al Pryor and Salvant’s vocal nuances are very clear. The album could have been enhanced by more improvisation, especially by the drummer—it is, after all, a jazz album. Salvant is an ambitious musician and has certainly added another great new album.
ADOLF ALZUPHAR is a music critic.