Cecile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers

It was almost exactly a year ago that I first heard Cecile McLorin Salvant at the Village Vanguard. I came home and wrote a blog for this space, wondering how I could have missed her ascent (she'd already won a Grammy and other prizes) and deeming her the best jazz singer around, standing among the greats of all time. I went back to see her, dragging along my wife and two friends, the following Sunday—the late set, the final set of his week-long stint—and she was better still. (That set inspired me to pitch a profile of her to The New Yorker, which was published this past May.)

As it turns out, her label, Mack Avenue Records, had been recording her sets all that weekend, and the Sunday late set comprises roughly half the tracks on the resulting album, Dreams and Daggers, which is out this week as a 2-CD or 3-LP package. It is, as far as I know, the best jazz vocal album in a decade, maybe in longer than that.

Salvant, who recently turned 28, can do it all: she sings standard ballads, upbeat bop and pop, feisty anthems, earthy blues; before turning exclusively to jazz, she also studied Baroque and classical singing, and her teacher told me she could have been top-ranked in that field, if she'd wanted. She has precise articulation, an operatic range, and emotional range too: she inhabits her songs, as an actress inhabits her character in a play.

While interviewing her for my New Yorker article, she told me that the Vanguard dates had marked a turning point in her development. Before then, she would sometimes display her vocal acrobatics for their own sake—a tic that made her wince when she heard the playback. She thought it made her sound desperate. Shortly before the Vanguard week, she came up with a tactic to let her relax: she would pretend that she was old; desperation is a young person's game; old people have nothing left to prove.

It worked. On Dreams and Daggers she roams leagues beyond her previous albums, WomanChild (which won a Grammy nomination) and For One to Love (which won the Grammy). "I want to be natural and free and adventurous," she told me in the New Yorker interview, and she sounds all of those things.

Her bandmates—Aaron Diehl on piano, Paul Sikivie on bass, Lawrence Leathers on drums—are in top form too: spurring, lyrical, and inventive in a way reminiscent of the finest trios backing Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald.

Most of the album comes from the final weekend of her Vanguard stint, much of it from that final Sunday set. Interspersed are a few songs, recorded later in a studio with a string ensemble behind her. There is not a dud on this album; there are several instant classics, notably her interpretations of "Mad About the Boy," "Sam Jones' Blues," "Somehow I Never Could Believe" (from an obscure Kurt Weill-Langston Hughes opera), "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues," "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me" . . . I could go on.

Salvant is back at the Vanguard this week, this time in duets with pianist Sullivan Fortner (who guest-played on a couple of songs from the album), a very different stylist from Aaron Diehl—more spare, at times pugnacious in a good-humored way, and just as keen a listener. I saw their opening set, on Tuesday, and Salvant just keeps getting better: more self-assured, more intimate, more joyous, more virtuosic but always in the service of the music and its story—as she put it, more natural and free and adventurous.

Back to the album: The engineering was by Damon Wittemore and Todd Whitelock, and this is one of the best-sounding live-at-the-Vanguard albums in years. The CD is excellent; the LP is better. The difference? On the CD, Salvant's voice is upfront, vivid. On the LP, it seems more "live," in the same space as the band, surrounded by air; you hear more of Sikivie's note-stretching fretwork on the bass, more of Leathers' subtle cymbal-swishing, more of Diehl's pedal work.

Here's an example, trivial but revealing. On "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me," the encore of Sunday's late set and the last track on the album (and by the way, a cover that now competes with Sinatra's for definitiveness), each musician leaves the stage as the song fades out—first Salvant, then Diehl, then Leathers, then Sikivie—and the crowd (a very buoyant crowd, that set) claps and cheers with each exit. When Diehl leaves, several people shout "Woooh!" On the CD, the wooohs merge; on the LP, they sound distinct—in space and in tone—and one of them sounds very much like my wife, coming from the same spot in the audience (two tables back on the left) where we were sitting (footnote 1). I asked her if she had indeed shouted "Woooh!" when Diehl left the stage, and she said that she had. Now that's high fidelity!

An indulgent PS: On the LP of Phil Ochs' notorious live concert at Carnegie Hall, recorded in 1970, when he's talking back at the audience, which has been booing him for dressing like Elvis Presley, you hear an avid Ochs-defender shout, "Yeah!" That was my wife at age 15. Her "Woooh!" and her "Yeah!" will be alive to the cosmos for as long as needles track grooves.

Footnote 1: Readers who are also listeners to NPR will be familiar with the sound of Fred's wife's voice, as she is "On The Media" host Brooke Gladstone.—John Atkinson

BradleyP's picture

How absolutely fortunate we are to be blessed with a jazz singer of this once-in-a-generation caliber...at the age of 28. Here's to a brilliant forty or fifty years ahead.

Major props are due to Mack Avenue records for capturing the intimacy of a live jazz venue. This recording has the net effect of making me feel more like I do at a jazz club than sitting in front of my stereo. That's a gift. I'm streaming it lossy right this minute but can't wait for a better format to arrive at my door. If you do vinyl, snap up this one while you can. Seriously.

If there is any justice, two Grammy nominations will follow. Good luck, Ms. Salvant and Mack Avenue! I'm rooting for you hard.

mmole's picture

My late brother's shout is heard during the opening notes of "Fat Angel" on Jefferson Airplane's "Bless Its Pointed Little Head," recorded live at the Fillmore East.

doak's picture

24/96 download of this fab album is available.
IMO sublime in every way.
Highly recommended.

cobra_verde's picture

According to Michael Fremer's post on this album on his Analog Planet platform: "Kevin Gray cut lacquers from 192/24 bit files."

Looks like HDTracks only has 24/96 files.

I don't recall Fred Kaplan ever broaching the subject of downloads, but rather sticks with CDs and vinyl.

Venere's picture

Fred got this one right, that’s for sure. There are at least ten songs in this collection that I would happily pay the full price of the CD to own. Simply magical song choices and performances. It does Ms. Salvant a disservice to simplify her individuality by comparing her to Ella and Billie, but just think about that for a minute. How many times in the last few decades could you say that with a straight face. If you like jazz dont hesitate. If you love jazz, this album could become one of your all time faves.