Word of mouth can often prove an unreliable thing, even more so promotional hype.
The Adelaide Festival performance of American jazz ‘sensation’, Cecile McLorin Salvant, was billed, prior to her Adelaide show, as something you will be able to brag about to future generations by saying ‘you were there’ – such is the expectation that Salvant will eventually become one of the legends of the genre – to rank, one day, alongside the likes of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith and Sarah Vaughan.
Well, having been one of those who can now say ‘I was there’, I cannot say that Salvant is, on this performance, quite ready to gain access to the pantheon yet.
Salvant is still young, by jazz standards, and whilst she certainly has a fine voice and has studiously soaked up the nuances and cadences of those who went before her, she still sounds as if she is reticent to really let loose her full emotive power. Only once, for example, did she really unleash her thrilling upper register, choosing to do so, appropriately, on the old Ida Cox standard, Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues.
Apart from this rare glimpse of that which she is truly capable, the remainder of the performance saw her stay within a less challenging range, and made it seem too often like she was concentrating too hard on having to break up the established melody lines of the broad selection of old show tunes, folk ballads, pop hits, jazz standards and sultry blues laments she presented, as if completing some sort of musical obstacle course that was set out to create vocal complexity simply for its own sake.
Salvant, in fact, stumbled occasionally into a raspy growl at times leaving notes incomplete as if she was out of breath, and her lowest notes sometimes disappeared under the accompanying instrumentation – yet, at other times, there were notes, phrases and well placed vocal pauses that sent chills deliciously down your spine.
Too much of the performance, though, seemed to be delivered at one pace, and Salvant was quite often static on stage, as if in rehearsal rather than in the moment of the dynamic atmosphere of a live performance. Combined with a very subdued lighting design, the total effect was a little too soporific in places.
The formula to which most selections adhered was predictable, the band subjecting each tune to diversionary musical guerrilla tactics mid-song. The frequent instrumental solos deconstructed the melodies of the tunes at hand, and reassembled them in unrecognisable sound shapes that often made you almost entirely forget what song was originally being played until the vocals once again resumed.
Virtuoso pianist Aaron Diehl was the main culprit in this regard, often taking off on atonal tangents, but bassist Paul Sikivie, and drummer Kyle Poole, were not immune to indulging in this over the top improvisational meandering either.
The musicians’ ‘adventurous’ approach admittedly thrilled some in the audience, and I did appreciate some of the inventiveness that these undeniably cool cats invoked, but at times it did sound like an actual cat had been allowed to roam freely across the keyboard, or to rub up against the double bass to relieve an itch.
On the other hand, the clarity of Salvant’s vocal delivery did allow for a greater appreciation of the narratives within the songs, and reposition your perspective on some old standards.
For instance, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Wives & Lovers was offered up amidst a brace of ‘problem songs’, and the political incorrectness of the lyric, when bracketed with other songs, such as Big Bill Broonzy’s Black Brown & White, was effectively and cleverly accentuated.
There were very few, if any, contemporary choices in the set selection. Old show tunes featured heavily, and songs like You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me, originally from 42nd Street, and The Trolley Song, from Meet Me In St. Louis, and Cole Porter’s All Through The Night, whilst hardly genre-busting, were all well-received.
Two other, relatively more obscure, show tunes, however, turned out to be the highlights of the show. The dark humour of Sheldon Harnick’s The Ballad Of The Shape Of Things from 1956’s The Littlest Revue, was delivered with a delightfully mischievous flair, and, in one of her encores, the sassy, An Occasional Man, originally from the 1955 film The Girl Rush, was also wonderfully sung with an appropriate air of playful defiance.
There were other highlights too: a rendition of Nancy Wilson’s breakthrough hit, Guess Who I Saw Today, effectively demonstrated Salvant’s ability to infuse a song with an appropriate level of dramatic tension. And the last song of the evening, a nineteenth century murder ballad, Little Omie, relating the sad tale of Naomi Wise, a young girl seduced and murdered by the heartless cad John Lewis, sung without musical accompaniment or needless complication of the original folk melody, accentuated the raw talent of this undeniably gifted singer.
The demographic of the audience in the Festival Theatre for this performance was primarily those of the third age, and this is where young jazz performers like Salvant face their most perplexing problem – how to re-energise a genre that relies so heavily on the songs of the past in order for the next generation to embrace it and ensure it survives?
Salvant has the potential to lead the vanguard, but will need to step outside of the constraints of technique more consistently, be more dynamic on stage, and let the expression of emotion more readily be apparent in her performance if she is to win over a younger audience.
Oddly, as it does not usually prove to be the case for most performers, her studio recordings showcase her attributes best, and I hope, if I get the chance to see her perform again later in her career, that she will have found a way to harness her talent more directly and effectively on the stage.
As the house lights came up at the end of the evening, I felt that I was certainly glad that ‘I was there’, but I am not sure I will necessarily be boasting to my grandchildren about that – but I will be very happy to be proven wrong.
Cecile McLorin Salvant performed at the Festival Theatre, on March 17 as part of the 2018 Adelaide Festival.
Adelaide Festival tickets for the last night of this year’s event are available here: Adelaide Festival tickets