jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant (credit: Shawn Michael Jones)

Cécile McLorin Salvant and Sullivan Fortner electrify with show-stopping jazz at a packed Spivey Hall

CONCERT REVIEW:
Cécile McLorin Salvant with Sullivan Fortner
February 17, 2024
Spivey Hall, Clayton State University
Morrow, Georgia – USA

Cécile McLorin Salvant, jazz vocals; Sullivan Fortner, piano.
J.C. JOHNSON: “Black Mountain Blues”
Gretchen PARLATO: “Circling”
Bob DOROUGH: “Devil May Care”
El DeBARGE: “Inside”
Richard ROGERS/Lorenz HART: “Ev’rything I’ve Got”
Richard ROGERS/Oscar HAMMERSTEIN: “The Gentleman is a Dope”
Ralph RAINGER/Leo ROBIN: “If I Should Lose You”
Mack GORDON: “If You Feel Like Singing, Sing!”
Eddie JEFFERSON: “Moody’s Mood”
Frank LOESSER: “Never Will I Marry”
Harold ARLEN: “If I Only Had a Brain”

Patrick Tabeek | 20 FEB 2023

While the day was frigid and the sky dreary, jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner brought the heat with what could already be one of the most brilliant performances of the year. Katie Lehman, artistic director of Spivey Hall, described the music of Salvant as “music for the ages” and “…music you’ll tell your grandchildren about” to introduce the duo. The hall erupted in applause as the three-time Grammy Award winner walked on stage, and I prepared myself for what I already felt would be a brilliant performance.

The performance’s opening number would be J.C. Johnson’s “Black Mountain Blues.” Salvant’s voice has so much power yet so much grace and elegance. It’s clear who her influences are, and she really pulls out her inner Bessie Smith while still making her own musical choices clear. A trend that began here and would not cease for the whole show is Salvant’s incredible storytelling. The accompaniment from Sullivan supplemented this well, as he created a musical backdrop that never covered her voice and made his own musical ideas heard. It was a masterful performance.


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The next tune brought us forward about 100 years in time to Gretchen Parlato’s “Circling.” A move to more contemporary jazz, Salvant quickly established to us her vast range of styles and ability to hop between genres effortlessly. I believe the success of this performance can be attributed to the perfect blend between both performers on stage and their understanding of their musical space. The juxtaposition between incredibly rhythmic piano makes you want to dance, while the floating and airy vocals made me want to do exactly that: float.

Sullivan Fortner (credit: Ogata)

Sullivan Fortner (credit: Ogata)

Next, we heard some of Salvant’s musical theatre background, with Bob Dorough’s “Devil May Care.” The real highlight of this tune was Sullivan’s solos throughout. Each one was expansive, incorporating percussive elements, masterful knowledge of the instrument, and harmonic and technical brilliance; he was able to fill the space completely but made sure not to overwhelm, which is the real brilliance to me. Something about this performance that really stands out to me personally is Salvant’s appreciation and knowledge of the musicians that came before her and the historical importance and lineage of each. It was really an honor to be educated in such a way throughout a performance.

Following was El DeBarge’s “Inside,” and a Richard Rogers/Lorenz Hart show-tune from By Jupiter (1942) entitled “Ev’rything I’ve Got.” These tunes, back-to-back again, showed an impressive ability to change from genre to genre without fault. They were very successful in retaining a captive and active audience. What followed was a set of post-war film classics, including Oscar Hammerstein/Richard Rogers’ “The Gentleman is a Dope,” Ralph Rainger/Leo Robin’s “If I Should Lose You,” and Mack Gordon’s “If You Feel Like Singing, Sing!”


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Continuing our journey through Salvant’s musical background, next up was some bebop with Eddie Jefferson’s “Moody’s Mood” and Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry.” Here, we got the purest taste of Salvant’s technical mastery of the voice. From Sullivan, I heard what I think was one of the most complete and brilliant piano solos I have ever witnessed, which is a testament to this performance as a whole. The pair’s mastery of their respective instruments and musicality transcends genre and style.

To round out the performance, we first got the last piece of Salvant’s musical influence puzzle, her French/Haitian background, with a traditional French folk tune, “Petite Musique Terrestre,” which provided some intimacy, as Salvant was clearly very emotionally invested in this tune, as French is her first language and mentioned its relevance to her childhood as well as her time at University (where she attended in France).


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The performance proper ended with Harold Arlen’s “If I Only Had a Brain,” a classic in film music from The Wizard of Oz (1939), where you could hear members of the crowd begin to join in. Smiles and laughs were shared in the crowd as the performance ended, and the duo was met with thunderous applause and a two-minute standing ovation.

The duo returned to the stage for a double encore of Burt Bacharach classics, “Always Something There to Remind Me” and the always show-stopping “Alfie,” which has seen a huge boost in popularity since Cynthia Erivo’s brilliant performance of the tune at last years Kennedy Center Honors. The duo was yet again met with another several minutes-long standing ovation, which was deserved given the brilliance of this performance, where no bit of musical space was left untraveled. It was truly one of the most inspiring performances I have seen.

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About the author:
Patrick Tabeek is a freelance violist and violinist, private instructor of violin, viola and piano, and composer primarily based in the Atlanta metro area.

Read more by Patrick Tabeek.
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