One of the finest sleights of hand in music is to write a song that sounds like a long-lost standard. Equally impressive, however, is the rare ability to perform a classic song and make it sound utterly new.
Those are just two skills at the disposal of rising star vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, whose Grammy-nominated sophomore album, “WomanChild,” was one of the sharpest, most magnetic releases of 2013. She wound up losing out to another breakout jazz vocal star, Gregory Porter, but there was no less of a buzz filling the air Monday night when McLorin Salvant was making her L.A. debut at a crowded Catalina Bar & Grill.
“She’s only 24,” one woman at the club’s many banquet tables said with wonderment before the show. She added with a laugh, “Let’s just hope she sticks with jazz.”
While there’s a certain protectiveness among some jazz devotees that’s akin to that of small-market baseball team fans who distrust big-money clubs looking for free agents, McLorin Salvant is not exactly a purist, either. She comes from a classical background, and her ear tilts to older, less familiar ground, something underscored by a charismatic performance of “Nobody,” a song from 1905 by vaudeville-era black comic Bert Williams.
Dressed in a short black dress with a feathered headband over her close-cut hair, McLorin Salvant nimbly moved through the song’s theatrical blues, playfully dipping into the chorus with an almost Paul Robeson-like purr. While her voice was immediately striking for her age, so was her assurance as she played with the song’s silences just as comfortably as its melody.
Still, McLorin Salvant isn’t shy about approaching the jazz canon either, delivering an acrobatic take on Abbey Lincoln’s “Laugh, Clown, Laugh” and an elastic version of the Broadway classic “If This Isn’t Love,” which was previously performed by Sarah Vaughan. Cole Porter, long a favorite for jazz vocalists, was also revisited with a double-header of “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “So in Love,” which at one point found McLorin Salvant dropping to a husky, almost didgeridoo-like tone atop a stark rhythmic backdrop.
Lincoln was another touchstone on McLorin Salvant’s lone original piece, her album’s dramatic title track. McLorin Salvant introduced the song as “the first thing I wrote I didn’t completely hate,” and her voice curled around a clockwork bassline, acrobatically twisting up and down the register as the song picked up steam. A gleeful take on Bessie Smith’s “You Got to Give Me Some” was another high point, showcasing McLorin Salvant’s coy sense of humor as she coursed through the song’s array of bawdy double-entendres, reveling in the frank, empowered sexuality that belies the song’s late ‘20s roots.
Pianist Ehud Asherie was a game foil for McLorin Salvant, though the evening would have benefited from the bolder ventures of her usual bandmate Aaron Diehl. The classic “John Henry” was missing the percussive touches from Diehl on record, but the arrangement retained a spare power as McLorin Salvant squared off with the driving rhythm section to a striking finish with the microphone at her waist, which allowed her bare voice to arc over the crowd with the intimacy of an old 78 record.
McLorin Salvant may not adhere to the strictest boundaries of jazz now or moving forward, but the question may ultimately be: Can jazz keep up with her?