Standing behind the Tiny Desk with only pianist Sullivan Fortner by her side, jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant remarked that she hadn't been this nervous in a while. But it was hard to tell: She embraced the discomfort with ease, taking command of the space with a calm demeanor and spiritual presence that felt both humble and persuasive.
From listening to McLorin Salvant's exquisite performance here, I also couldn't tell that when she was 15, she was listening to Alice in Chains, sported a Mohawk and was into what she calls "radical feminist punk stuff," as she told NPR after the performance. "Sometimes I still really like Bikini Kill, and I still have my little Pearl Jam grunge moments."
What can be heard in each song is a seasoned jazz singer with a vast vocal range, meticulous technical execution and a superb classical vocal foundation, which actually began when she was just 8. Her background in classical piano is evident in the inventive harmonic and melodic construction of the first three songs heard here; all are romantically themed McLorin Salvant compositions from her third album, For One to Love, recorded in 2015. The record won her a 2016 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
McLorin Salvant closes with "Omie Wise," an American folk song that tells the tragic story of murder victim Naomi Wise and her husband and killer, John Lewis:
Then pushed her in deep waters where he knew that she would drown
He jumped on his pony and away he did ride
The screams of little Omie went down by his side.
Feminist themes are common in McLorin Salvant's music, and while "Omie Wise" addresses gender-based violence, she says she sings difficult songs like this to address an important historical legacy. "We don't sing to our kids and we don't know any of our folk music anymore," McLorin Salvant says. "But like all of the history of race songs, coon songs, minstrel music, music from Vaudeville, all of that is like, 'No, we're not going to address that — that's too ugly.'"
While the words in "Omie Wise" hit hard, the ballad's melody — like all of the other music played here — is nothing but beautiful. McLorin Salvant's fifth album, a duo record with Fortner, comes out Sept. 28.
- "Look At Me"
- "Omie Wise"
Producers: Suraya Mohamed, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Khun Minn Ohn; Production Assistant: Catherine Zhang; Photo: Samantha Clark/NPR