If you love Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Betty Carter and you live in the 2010s, you have a pretty clear choice about what to do with your buying choices: keep picking up reissues of Vaughan, Fitzgerald, Holliday, Smith and Carter. Hold on and check that, though — we now have Cécile McLorin Salvant, who at 29 has already proven herself a worthy successor in that lineage. The 21st century may not be a terrible time to be alive as a jazz vocals fan after all.
Her fourth album, “The Window,” came out this week, and it’ll clearly be her fourth consecutive record to be nominated for a Grammy for best jazz vocal album… and maybe her third in a row to win. If there were such a thing as a Grammy for best jazz piano album, “The Window” should rightfully be up for that, too, because keyboardist Sullivan Fortner is an equal — and equally spectacular — partner through all 17 tracks, regardless of whether he gets cover billing.
McLorin Salvant’s last album, 2017’s “Dreams and Daggers,” was a more expansive affair, with a full band, orchestration and spoken-word interludes. This one is an album-length vocal/piano duet. But “minimalist” isn’t a word that will come to mind: Fortner is agreeably insane enough as a player that he doesn’t just sound like a full band, he sounds like two bands playing at once. And the frontwoman is the very farthest thing from a musical shrinking violet. There are quiet moments in “The Window,” but they’re outweighed by the frantic ones, so if the stripped-down format suggests something polite, think again: McLorin Salvant and her accompanist are majestic and unhinged in equal measure.
The opening track, Stevie Wonder’s “Visions,” is a bit of an outlier in the album’s setlist, both in terms of being a more contemporary composition and a socially conscious one, which is definitely a side McLorin Salvant has drifted toward before. But the rest of “The Window” is pretty close to being a concept album about romantic obsession. Possible tipoff: there’s a song borrowed from Sarah Vaughan’s final album in 1987 that is actually called “Obsession.” It’s also a trip through the back catalog of some of the most esteemed songwriters and singers of the 20thcentury, avoiding anything familiar enough that it might be considered a part of the Great American Songbook, with the exception of an epic version of “West Side Story’s” “Somewhere.” She’s mining the Great Obscurities Songbook, and she’d be worth our attention if she were only a vocally challenged curator of unrevived gems.
It’s about one-fifth a Richard Rogers tribute album: McLorin Salvant covers little-known Rodgers & Hammerstein (“The Gentleman is a Dope,” from the unsuccessful 1947 musical “Allegro”), little-known Rodgers & Hart (“Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You,” from 1942’s “By Jupiter”) and little known Rodgers-by-himself (“The Sweetest Sound,” from 1962’s “No Strings”). Cole Porter is represented by a familiar show (“Kiss Me Kate”) but a tune whose Elizabethan language probably helped circumvent any chance of it becoming a staple of cabaret nights (“Were Thine That Special Face”). “By Myself,” Fred Astaire’s loneliness-exalting solo interlude from “The Band Wagon” and a little remembered Cy Coleman tune show up too. But it’s not all show tunes, as she draws from jump-blues bandleader Buddy Johnson, Nat King Cole and Aretha Franklin — whose super-obscure, pre-stardom 45 “One Step Ahead” provides a delightfully jaunty highlight here.
The Edith Piaf-popularized “J’ai L’Cafard” is the most depressing tune of the lot — but only if you speak French, as no translation is provided. (Sample lyrics, according to one rendering: “I’ve taken tons of things, ether, morphine, cocaine, evil drugs that lure women, all the better to crush their brains, even as I know that every drop of that disgusting poison drags my body to its death.”) McLorin Salvant’s English-language picks don’t go nearly that dark, but she’s happy to explore the highest highs and lowest lows of the torch song form, with nearly bipolar levels of elation to go with the pining.
She’s good about sharing. “The Sweetest Sounds” consists of one minute of vocalizing, followed by a dazzling four-minute piano solo. Some other tracks are short and sweet — and then there’s the 10-minute closer, recorded live at the Village Vanguard, “The Peacocks,” a vocal adaptation of an old Jimmy Rowles instrumental. For just this closer, a sax soloist, Melissa Aldana, sits in with the singer and pianist, and it’s a masterpiece of moody echoing as the horn plays in tandem with her voice as McLorin Salvant agonizes over a lover’s elusiveness. “The summer sky I saw reflected in the color of your eyes,” she and the sax player both “sing,” going on and off the melody line in synch, “but somehow I could never peel away the layers of disguise… I’m drowning now.” To sink or swim with her through these treacherous romantic waters is to know you’re keeping company with a world-class talent.
Cécile McLorin Salvant
Mack Avenue Records
Producers: Al Pryor and Cécile McLorin Salvant