Cécile McLorin Salvant draws on the past to captivate at Cadogan Hall


After a lovely low-key opening set from Femi Temowo, featuring a Lagos-style version of The Beatles’ tune ‘Blackbird’ and a song called ‘A Moment in Time’, inspired by Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart, both of which will feature on Temowo’s album-in-the-making Blood is Not for Drinking, the audience was left to ponder the role of music in relation to conflict, in the wake of the tragic events that unfolded in Paris just the previous evening, as we waited for US vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant to come on stage.

Salvant’s repertoire consists of refreshing reinterpretations of forgotten, overlooked and underrated gems from the last hundred years of jazz, musical and songbook writing, where each number feels like it's the first time you've ever heard it. She has a lot of different vocal textures at her disposal, which coupled with a fabulous band – notably Aaron Diehl on piano who one suspects has put together a lot of the arrangements – enable her to present a voice that can create a huge variety of different moods and moments. Sometimes she throws her head back and accesses an open throated sound, sometimes she leans over and it's more like a sub-tone kind of delivery, even mixing it up within the same song to emphasise a feeling or a lyric in a particular way. She’s retelling you timeless stories and in so doing, giving them more poignancy, more irony, more playfulness, yet somehow all the while without any affectation.

We had ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, with a spare, spoken word quality, an extraordinary Kurt Weill aria called ‘Somehow I Never Could Believe’, and then a cheeky New Orleans number ‘I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate’, which was heavy on innuendo yet had a delicious lightness of touch. She did one original, ‘Monday’, short but very affecting, and a gorgeous trio of Cole Porter tunes, which she reinterpreted with great aplomb, particularly ‘Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love’, transformed into a Feminist-themed tract, a polemic that continued into the arguably sexist Burt Bacharach song, ‘Wives and Lovers’. Salvant manages to poke fun at the material while doing it renewed justice. Quite a feat. But it was her topical treatment of ‘Le Mal de Vivre’ that left the audience nothing short of speechless.

Sarah Chaplin