A list of the greatest jazz singers of the 20th century would include names like Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. A similar list for the 21st century so far would undoubtedly contain Cécile McLorin Salvant’s.
Salvant’s career began to take off after winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2010. She has since released seven albums and won a Grammy award for the third, “For One to Love.”
Her most recent work is perhaps the most ambitious and unique yet. Entitled “Mélusine,” it tells the folkloric tale of a woman of the same name who was cursed to become a half-snake on Saturdays. It’s sung in multiple languages — primarily French, as well as English, Occitan and Haitian Kreyol, reflecting Salvant’s Haitian and French parentage.
It opens on a quiet and somber note — a tone that permeates much of the album — with “Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent?” Calm, even piano arpeggios and acoustic bass steadily mark the meter under Salvant’s frantic but precise French vocals.
At the song’s halfway point, the piano ostinato descends into a swirling, atonal mess that gives the song an agitated and anxious feeling. As a creative composition that executes unique ideas within a small scope, it sets the tone for the album well.
Related: [M83’s ‘Fantasy’ modernizes the sounds of days past]
“Il m’a vue nue” picks up the energy somewhat with the rhythms and cadences of the Caribbean. Cowbell and hand drums accompany a whistling melody and piano at its beginning, later being joined by vocals that are light, but brimming with energy.
The piano improvises flighty, consonant lines behind the vocals in roughly the same range, the two melodies dancing around each other. Where the album to this point had been much less spirited, “Il m’a vue nue” will surely bring a smile.
“Doudou” begins rubato with just piano and voice before jumping into a complex, percussive groove. A syncopated bassline and busy percussion hold down the foundation while the piano improvises and adds sharp offbeat hits.
An intense, melodic saxophone solo joins the piano for a while, bringing a frenzied feeling to the texture. The whole song is written with very involved rhythms playing against each other in each part, but it still feels danceable for the most part, owing in no small part to the musicians’ precision and togetherness.
Related: [COLUMN: Return of the robots: Chat GPT expands its band, The Wild Hearts]
The song’s title track is the only song to be sung mostly in English. Although many listeners will feel more at home due to that fact, the music does not reflect that feeling. The melodies are mostly diatonic in the verses, but the refrain is of a strange, unfamiliar tonality that didn’t strike me.
The album ends with “Dame Iseut,” a light, brief tune featuring bass, two drums, and a bright mallet instrument. It seems a somewhat strange choice on which to end a record that’s mostly slower, somber songs, but I don’t mind it. The agile texture and catchy harmony leave a fresh taste in the ears.
“Mélusine” is an album full of immaculately performed, tightly written tunes that take musical inspiration from numerous cultures surrounding its source material and their composer. It’s a refreshing and modern take that combines several distinct sounds in a unique way. I only lament my lack of knowledge of the French language keeping me from fully absorbing the story.