It’s not often you feel you’re in the presence of greatness but there was probably not one person in the Salon Elegance tent at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on Thursday night who did not sense that they were in close proximity to a great new voice.
The 22-year-old singer Cecile McLorin Salvant is quite something to behold. She has an extraordinarily versatile voice which mesmerised the audience whether she was singing a gentle ballad or putting over a sexy, salty blues. Only the recurring problem of the beat of the music from elsewhere in George Square infiltrating the tent threatened to snap anyone out of the Salvant spell which was especially effective on the gorgeous ballads There’s a Lull in My Life and Born To Be Blue, both of which showcased the luscious, rich quality to her wide-ranging voice and the way she brings every word to life.
That aspect was particularly evident on Love For Sale where her habits of distorting vowels, plunging deep into her range and making unexpectedly ugly sounds were used to powerful, dramatic effect, underlying her disgust at the scene she was depicting – a technique which brought Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit to mind. The tragic piece of folk lore encapsulated in a spiritual entitled John Henry also benefitted from Salvant’s gift for storytelling. That song was one of a handful which might be almost five times as old as she is: it was a glorious treat to hear the seldom-performed blues Oh Daddy and to be introduced to Bert Williams song Nobody.
Many of the songs may have been from the 1920s and 1930s, but Salvant brought them vividly back to life – and, what was surprising was the agelessness about her performance: only such jubilant, energetic numbers as the wonderful Valaida Snow song I Can’t Dance (I Got Ants in My Pants) and What a Little Moonlight Can Do served as a reminder of the fact that she is not an older singer.
First published in The Herald, Monday July 30th