Cécile McLorin Salvant is widely acknowledged as this era’s foremost jazz singer. Any way you look at it, she’s the most mutable one. If you’ll forgive a little jazzspeak, she’s on first name terms with Ella and Sarah and Billie and Anita and Dinah…and even Blossom too. Salvant is a woman of a thousand voice, but also none other than her own – she transcends the sum of her influences for a uniquely nuanced yet dramatic style. And as much acclaim as she’s has earned for her voice, her songwriting is just as significant. The world premiere of her new big band suite, Ogresse, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past September was a lush, epic, phantasmagorical thrill ride, a withering parable of racial and gender politics that could not have come at a more appropriate time. How did that compare with the performance this past evening at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center?
This show seemed tighter, and somewhat shorter. There’s no question that solos, whether from Alexa Tarantino’s soprano sax, Warren Wolf’s vibraphone, Brandon Seabrook’s banjo, Tom Christensen’s oboe and tenor sax, and Kirk Knuffke’s cornet, among others, were punchier and more emphatic. Pairings between instruments – one of conductor and arranger Darcy James Argue’s favorite tropes – also seemed to be far more fleeting this time around. More subjectively, this show seemed more intimate: it was possible to make out the ominous lettering on Salvant’s elegant white robe. But the Met premiere was on a high stage under low lights, no doubt enhancing the sense of majesty and overwhelming sweep. NJPAC – which, along with the Met, co-commissioned the piece – is an amphitheatre where every seat seems to be closer to the stage than it really is.
On the surface, Ogresse is about a monster who lives in the woods, where she’s escaped after some early trauma that Salvant addresses with characteristically macabre allusiveness early in the suite. An ingenue from town disappears; one of the people there, not known for his fortitude, decides to seduce the ogresse in order to kill her. Despite all attempts to resist, the would-be assassin’s seemingly selfless overtures start to get under her skin. Meanwhile, the woodland animals do their best to bring the ogresse to her senses. The high point of the show, vocally at least, is when a robin wails over and over, “The man is lying!” That interlude was possibly even more spine-tingling here than it was at the Manhattan show.
Salvant’s genius as a tunesmith comes through as she takes venerable themes from torch songs from over the decades and turns them inside out. Being a purist, she has meticulous command of golden-age jazz vernacular and uses that to full effect – but for distant menace rather than seduction. When the allusion to the Twin Peaks main theme finally appeared, foreshadowing a carnivalesque waltz in a graveyard, the impact packed even more of a wallop than the massed glimmer of the full ensemble, which included the strings of the Mivos Quartet.
And the suite isn’t completely grim. Salvant has a coy, puckish and very deviously edgy sense of humor, which came through both via a couple of recipes – each sung in French – as well as the occasional detour into a wafting, boudoir jazz delivery or more playfully chirpy phrasing. There were also many moments where the music reflected a similar sensibility, whether when pianist Helen Sung picked up a melodica for a surreal ska-tinged passage, or when trombonist Josh Roseman delivered squeaky extended-technique drollery when he switched to tuba.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference in this performance was how Seabrook – a guitarist by trade, and an often rivetingly assaultive one – approached the main banjo theme, which Salvant employs as a Greek chorus of sorts. It’s built around a suspenseful, implied minor chord. At the Met, Seabrook approached it with more than a hint of skronk. This time out, he didn’t frail it, country-style, but nonetheless gave it more of a spare, traditional rustic Americana flavor, which raised the southern gothic ambience several notches.
So when the time came for Salvant to flip the script on both protagonist and antagonist, the tension had reached fever pitch – with the help of literally conflagrational orchestration behind her. It was here where she turned her back on the audience and faced the band, motionless, for what seemed minutes on end – and set up the crushing irony of the coda.
NJPAC is not only home to a lot of jazz but also classical music. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra have a stand here Nov 29-Dec 2, with music by Stravinsky and Milhaud with pianist Aaron Diehl as soloist in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. You can get in for $20.