Cécile McLorin Salvant ‘Dream and Daggers’ 3LP/2CD/DIG (Mack Avenue) 5/5

Part recorded live before an audience at the legendary Village Vanguard club in Greenwich Village, New York, part recorded with strings in the studio, this extended take on Cécile McLorin Salvant is typically individual and quirky, and breathes new life into some of the Great American songbook standards, while equally demonstrating that the singer is developing into a gifted and innovative songwriter. The material is at once thought-provoking and challenging, and Salvant is extremely well supported by regular Aaron Diehl on piano, Paul Sikivie on double bass and Laurence Leathers on drums. Adding layered texture to proceedings are the Catalyst String Quartet.

It may surprise some to know that Cécile McLorin Salvant has been the recipient of the Down Beat critics poll for best female vocalist for four years in a row and this critically acclaimed reception is really an indication of how her idiosyncratic and ever entertaining take on standards and own originals has found favour with the critics including this one who has been repeatedly impressed by the quality of her work. What this writer especially likes about the voice is that it communicates directly to the audience and radiates warmth and a uniquely individual take on life’s narrative. It is often the awkwardness of every day life that provides the material for the singer to stamp her own imprint on. This time round, some of the originals are quite inward looking in character and, while not wholly autobiographical, McLorin Salvant does draw upon personal experience for inspiration. Five songs were either written solely by, or co-written by the singer, invariably with Paul Sikivie. There are echoes of Betty Carter on, ‘Never will I marry’, with full-on vocals and a drum solo. Compare this number with Carter’s own, ‘Some gentlemen don’t like love’, and you can begin to hear a logical evolution

A lengthy homage to the US songbook takes in Irving Berlin, Noel Coward, George Gershwin and Kurt Weill, while the blues is not forgotten with a Buddy Johnson composition in, ‘Tell me what they’re saying can’t be true’ and the traditional, ‘Wild women don’t have the blues’. For the latter, the storytelling quality of McLorin Salvant in a live context is showcased and the subtle use of strings is never intrusive, or overly lush.

The trio excel in this repertoire and the elasticity of their improvisation allied with McLorin Salvant’s own elongating of lyrics makes for some thrilling listening. A breezy, ‘I didn’t know what time it was’, contrasts with an austere reading of the ballad, ‘You’re my thrill’, and in her phrasing there are elements of both Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, but it still comes out sounding her own. An unexpected singer inspiration turns out to be Bob Dorough and McLorin Salvant tackles both, ‘Devil may care’ and, ‘Nothing like you’, the latter especially convincing.

Sound quality is excellent and captures the intimacy of the rapport with the audience that the Village Vanguard is rightly famed for, with individual instrumentation clearly distinguishable. Reproducing handwritten lyrics is a nice touch on the inner sleeve notes, even if they are not always easy to decipher, and the evocative illustrated drawings on the outer cover are another indication that Cécile McLorin Salvant wishes to have a direct input in all aspects of the recording process and why not when the final result is as enjoyable as this. A marvellous individual voice and a star of the future.

Tim Stenhouse