Cécile McLorin Salvant presented an all-French program, Les Belles Chansons Françaises, with Dan Tepfer on piano at Bard College’s Sosnoff Theater on the Saturday before Christmas to a virtually sold-out crowd where even the balconies were filled. Born in Miami to a French mother and Haitian doctor, she attended college in France. Completely bi-lingual, she joked about having a split personality—one identity for each language.
At twenty-one Salvant won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2010 and brought out her first album that year; her 2015 album For One to Love garnered a Grammy Award for Grammy Award for Best Jazz . In 2015 The Guardian acclaimed her “jazz informed artistry of the highest class.” Salvant recently landed her second Grammy Award for her album Dreams and Daggers. She is currently beginning a world tour. At the conclusion of her Sosnoff concert, Salvant was presented with her second award for Jazz Vocalist of the Year from the Jazz Journalists Association. This concert was co-presented and specially commissioned by The Catskill Jazz Factory.
On love songs, the French have the largest, greatest, and most expressive nuance and quality in the world. With roots of their love-song tradition reaching back to the twelfth century, the repertoire is dazzlingly immense. (I heartily recommend Marilyn Yalom’s 2012 book How the French Invented Love.) Salvant selected her favorite songs from the twelfth century and on, yet the primary focus was on songs from the first six decades of the twentieth century.
Salvant opened with “Come on Over” in French (Shania Twain and Christina Aguilera have recorded adapted English versions) where Salvant exhibited her lilting delicacy and soft contours. This was followed by “My Greatest Love Affair is You,” (Ma plus belle histoire d'amour), written and sung by Barbara (1930-1997), whom both Salvant and Tepfer (who is also bilingual, having been reared in France) acclaimed as one the greatest singers of the twentieth century, and whose only love was her audience. Tepfer described Barbara’s performances as haunting. Salvant aptly caught the tragic melancholy but perhaps not the world-weary anguish and cynicism of Barbara.
For some slightly bawdy comic relief, Salvant sang Georges Bressons (1921-81) “Le Père Noël et la petite fille” (Santa Claus and the Little Girl) which describes Santa as a “Sugar Daddy.” Here Salvant delivered far more charm and subtle suggestion than Bressons was ever capable of.
A song about a working-class woman who has a one-nighter with a sailor when the man she really loves remains at sea was sung with longing and the bleak frisson of anguished victimization. Salvant next sang a thirteenth century song made famous by Yvette Guilbert (1865-1944), a Belle Epoch sensation whom Sigmund Freud had traveled to Paris to hear her sing his favorite song, “Dîtes-moi que je suis belle” (Tell me that I am beautiful) which can be found on YouTube. Salvant sang this charmingly humorous song with an introverted authenticity that has not been recorded (the usual approach presents a mangled, music-hall, slatternly extroverted recital).
À Clef (“To the Key”), written by Salvant just this year, offered a lilting elegance with Tepfer adroitly on keys. “J’ai L’Cafard” (I have a cockroach in my heart) ratcheted up longing and ache with deep emotional electricity. Tepfer then contributed an arrangement of a Francis Poulenc classic art song, Hôtel. (Hotel, lyrics by Guillaume Apollinaire—some of which were also used by Pink Martini in their album title song Sympathetique) which Salvant sang with svelte polish. Closing out the set was another Salvant original, intimate, love song of tender endearment, as Tepfer improvised background runs with sensitive and sometimes humorous aplomb.
Salvant has that accomplished ease of singing that hides the deep work of her artistry as it combines with expressive emotional roots, which is about the highest compliment that can be made. If you hear of her performing anywhere near your location, don’t pass up the opportunity not hear one of the great chanteuses of our era. A short video of her singing “Look at Me” appears below.
The Catskill Jazz Factory will be back at The Millbrook Library with an event on Jan. 12.