“The man is lying!”
Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voice rose with an ineluctable, fearsome wail through that accusatory phrase as the orchestra behind her reached hurricane force. In the year of Metoo, fake news emanating daily via Twitter from the nation’s highest office, and Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers risking their lives to deny rape culture a seat on the nation’s highest court, Salvant could not have picked a more appropriate time to sing that.
The character she was voicing in that moment, the most fervent in a night full of metaphorically-charged, magic realist narrative, was a robin. It was warning the protagonist in Salvant’s new suite, Ogresse, to beware of a would-be suitor’s ulterior motives. It was possibly the highest peak that Salvant and the band reached in almost two hours of lush, sweeping big band jazz drawing on a hundred years’ worth of influences.
Yet the world premiere of the work, performed to a sold-out crowd last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, turned out to be just as firmly rooted in the here and now. Many of the suite’s themes mirrored Rachelle Garniez’s fabulist reinventions and Rose Thomas Bannister’s great plans gothic as much as they did Billy Strayhorn, or Cole Porter, or Ellington.
The book on Salvant is that she can personify just about any singer from jazz’s golden age. That may be true, but as much as the night’s more coy moments brought to mind Dinah Washington, along with Sarah Vaughan in the more somber ones and Ella Fitzgerald when the music swung hardest, Salvant was most shattering when she sang without the slightest adornment. Knowingly, she went to that calm purity at the night’s most telling junctures.
The suite began with a hypnotically atmospheric, practically Indian lustre and ended with a bittersweetly low-key glimmer. In between, In between, Salvant bolstered her chameleonic reputation with expertly nuanced, torchy ballads, stark delta blues, epic swing anthems and a couple of detours into French chanson and all sorts of blue-neon Lynchian luridness. Late in the score, the band finally alluded to the Twin Peaks theme for a couple of bars.
Darcy James Argue conducted and also arranged the suite. Having seen him many times in the former role over the last few years, he seemed to be having more fun than ever before – then again, he plays his cards close to the vest onstage. Whatever the case, Salvant’s songs have given him fertile territory for his signature, epic sweep and counterintuitive pairings between individual voices in the ensemble.
Helen Sung’s poignant, lyrical piano traded off with David Wong’s similarly inflected bass during a graveyard waltz. Tenor saxophonist Tom Christensen’s plaintive oboe, vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s sepulchrally sprinting marimba, and trombonist Josh Roseman’s surprisingly lilting tuba all rose to the surreal command demanded by Argue’s wicked chart. The solo that drew the most awestruck applause was from Alexa Tarantino’s soprano sax, a particularly poignant, emotionally raw salvo.
Brandon Seabrook began the show on Strat but quickly switched to banjo, which anchored the 19th century blues-inflected interludes. Yet he never picked with traditional three-finger technique, hammering on enigmatic open chords or aggressively tremolo-picking his phrases. Maybe that was Argue’s decision not to dive deep into the delta swamp.
Salvant’s lyricism is as deep and vast as her music. The suite’s plotline involves a rugged individualist who has her own grisly way of dealing with the menace of the townspeople outside – we learn toward the end that she’s no angel herself, either.
Father had flown away sometime ago
My face was all he left behind
But soon he left my mother’s mind
She remarried a shadow
That set the stage for the grim ramifications of that particular circumstance, which Salvant and the group slowly unveiled, up to a literal forest fire of a coda. The conclusion, which Salvant had been foreshadowing all along, drew a fervent “Yessssss!” from an alluring, petite brunette in glasses and a smart sweater seated to the author’s immediate right. The audience echoed that sentiment via three standing ovations, a triumph for a group that also included purposeful trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, percussionist Samuel Torres and the sweeping strings of the Mivos Quartet.
This could have been the best concert of the year – and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has many more. Some of them are free with museum admission: you could see plaintive Armenian duduk music played by the duo of Gevorg Dabaghyan and Vache Sharafyan in Gallery 199 at 5:30 PM on Oct 26.