Recording of April 2022: Ghost Song

Cécile Mclorin Salvant: Ghost Song
McLorin Salvant, vocals; Sullivan Fortner, piano, Fender Rhodes; Aaron Diehl, piano, pipe organ; Paul Sikivie, Burniss Travis, bass; Alexa Tarantino, flute; Marvin Sewell, guitar; James Chirillo, banjo; Keita Ogawa, percussion; Kyle Poole, drums; Daniel Swenberg, lute, theorbo; Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
Nonesuch (LP, CD). McLorin Salvant, prod.; Todd Whitelock, Patrick Dillet, Chris Muth, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Starting with her out-of-nowhere triumph at the 2010 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition and continuing with the release of four albums including three Grammy winners, Cécile McLorin Salvant, still just 32, has been raising eyebrows and neck hairs for a dozen years. She reigns as the supreme jazz singer of our time, ranking among the best of all time. More remarkable, she keeps getting better, and, rarer still, she keeps evolving, expanding her repertoire of styles—which was vast from the start—without losing a wisp of her deep blues, swing, precision, wit, operatic range, or storytelling drama.

Ghost Song, her debut on Nonesuch, is unlike anything she's recorded. It contains no jazz standards. It begins with a gorgeous a cappella, which sounds like Hildegard of Bingen and segues into Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights," follows with a medley of "Optimistic Voices" from The Wizard of Oz and Gregory Porter's "No Love Dying," then veers into the album's title tune, a song of her own composition about failed love, then a witty ditty on the annoying obligations of romance (another original, which evokes the spirits of Nöel Coward and Dorothy Parker), and ends Side 1 with Sting's "Until."

Side 2 begins with an original called "I Lost My Mind" (overdubs of her voice backed by eerie pipe organ), moves to "Moon Song," another original of pining love; "The World Is Mean," from Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera; "Dead Poplar," a ballad set to the text of a love letter from Alfred Stieglitz to Georgia O'Keeffe; climaxed by another original, "Thunderclouds," a song of unhesitant, unbridled love, which, after the ambivalence and anguish of the previous songs, feels like a break in a storm.

But then comes the coda, a traditional folk ballad, "Unquiet Grave," about a man mourning the loss of his beloved and the buried woman who is troubled by his melancholy and seeks peace in the beyond. Salvant sings it a cappella—as she sang "Wuthering Heights" at the album's beginning—against the natural echo of St. Malachy's Church in Times Square, on an uneasily quiet day with no traffic noise heard outside, amid the pandemic's lockdown.

This is an album to listen to, riveted, as an album, not a mere collection of songs. It's like watching a cabaret act or gazing through a musical scrapbook that documents the scattered moods of a particular time. Kurt Weill is clearly an inspiration here, not merely the composer of one track. Salvant told me that she'd been listening to his music a fair amount, attracted to his "acerbic humor," his "fatalism with a wink and a laugh and a wistful social commentary." Her rendition on Dreams and Daggers of Weill's heartbreaking "Somehow I Never Could Believe," from his opera Street Scene, was the first sign that Salvant could sculpt a story, a whole play, from a lyric—that she could be a great musical actress if she wanted to be. On Ghost Song, she extends this art through the winding voyage of an entire album.

Six of the 12 tracks are composed by Salvant. She wrote a few originals for her first two works, WomanChild and For One to Love, but they didn't measure up to the albums' standards. Her originals on Ghost Song very much do measure up. These are works of poetry, with striking images and stirring arrangements.

Those arrangements vary in size: duets with piano, pipe organ, or bass; trios, both standard (piano-bass-drums) and unusual (piano-flute-banjo); quartets with guitar and percussion—all played by musicians she's worked with before, augmented, on one song, by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. (Because of the pandemic, each of the choir's 27 singers sent in a home-recorded file, which Salvant's longtime engineer, Todd Whitelock, seamlessly wove together.)

The sound in general, on vinyl and digital, is superb, recorded in 24/96 digital—mainly at Brooklyn's Bunker Studio, renowned for its fine piano and vintage mikes—and mixed on a Neve 8088 analog console. The album sounds warmer than usual but also crisp and detailed, an effect pulled off with a deft combination of mikes—tubes (a Neuman U47 on her voice), condensers, and ribbons. There is no EQ or other artificial additives. On the church tracks, the reverb is natural, not electronic.—Fred Kaplan

joe149's picture

After having spent some time listening to this album as a result of reading this review, I am very much less than impressed. Well, yes, it's a great album sonically, but Salvant's singing didn't impress me at all, much less to rate her as the best current jazz singer, and one of the best of all time? Not even close.

PeterG's picture

An avid Cecile fan, I preordered months ago, and spun the disk right away. I must admit that I was underwhelmed on that first listen, kinda of feeling that she had jumped the shark--just too far out there to be of interest, too wrapped up in technique...

But then I listened again, and...WOW!!! This album is riveting, as you say. Like a small number of albums from a small number of artists, it is so new, so good, so different, you really can't listen to anything else afterwards. A monster achievement from one of our greatest vocalists.

ednazarko's picture

Not just with this album... which on first listen I thought was OK, and then I listened deeper - late at night, top end DAC, planar headphones - and then it took me several hours to get to sleep. She's developed in a very complex way.

She's done a playlist on Qobuz... I listened to over half of it (3+ hours long) and was blown away by her musical perceptions. The juxtapositions are often surprising initially, and then... they make sense. Sometimes a juxtaposition only makes sense by the third piece. My wife is an opera fan who's good with straight ahead jazz... but when she listened to this playlist, she was suddenly talking about rap and edgy soul.

I'm impressed by her as a musician. Not just on her own performances, but on her POV about music.

rickmcinnis's picture

When I began my subscription to an audio magazine for the first time in over a decade I was hoping I would be exposed to some good music.

After a year I have been disappointed by the record reviews. A Black Sabbath reissue as a recording of the month? Oh, well.

But then I see this - having never heard of her i was intrigued by a new take on Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights. Not that I am Kate Bush fan but that song contains a melody so ethereal; I have never forgot it.

I saw I could get a preview on YOUTUBE and sat in my office desk chair in a trance while it played it a few times.

Got the album and find it is one of the few I have bought over a lifetime that demands to be listened to in total every day.

My only complaint with the review is one would think Mr. Kaplan would know that Weill never wrote any lyrics. Starting with the spoiled child of the German Democratic Republic Brecht (*who later in life started to see the folly of socialism in the real world) and the lyricists he worked with in the US.

Makes me think i would love to hear McLorin-Salvant's (I hate these pretentious hyphenated names) take on September Song. Not a difficult song to sing but I would like to hear her embellishments to such an excellent skeleton. Maxwell Anderson's lyric will put a lump in the throat every time. Have to hand it to Lou Reed for doing the most evocative version I have heard.

Mr. Kaplan, your reviews will get extra attention from me in the future.

Fred Kaplan's picture

Thank you for your nice words. But (1) Kurt Weill wrote LOTS of lyrics, and (2) McLorin is Cecile Salvant's middle name, not the first part of a hyphenate. Looking forward to your continued readership.