Music review: Cécile McLorin Salvant, QPAC

Award-winning jazz performer, Cécile McLorin Salvant, wows the audience.
Salvant. Image is of a spotlight woman wearing a black cloak with arms outstretched to the side to fill half the spotlit space, looking at the camera and with multicoloured hair.

It would be easy for US-born Cécile McLorin Salvant to entrance a crowd with an evening of pure jazz and blues standards. She has a voice capable of lulling, like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday flowing together in a cliché of date-night and dinner-party perfect arrangements. The audience would leave soothed, knowing they’d been masterfully handled by an artist in full possession of her powers.

Instead, on a sultry October night in QPAC’s Concert Hall, Salvant took us on a capricious trip through her eclectic repertoire, from her own compositions to old-fashioned delights such as ‘Riding High’ and not one, but two show tunes from The Sound of Music. Her 2023 Australian tour is a rare chance to see a master of her art playing with the raw materials: her band and her audience, and privileging dynamism over comfort. 

A generous and engaging performer, Salvant starts ‘Haunted House Blues’, a Bessie Smith favourite, with a gleeful whoop that lets us know we are in for a spooky treat as she hams it up for the crowd. Salvant’s exaggerated facial expressions and dancing hands speak of a lifetime immersed in the physical storytelling traditions of her Haitian ancestors. At 34, her stage persona is ageless, skipping from the cutest five-year-old to the don’t-mess-with-me grandmother and so many iterations of the soulful, yearning lover in between.

This stagecraft brings a sweetly accessible element to even her more challenging numbers. 

She imbues ‘Barbara Song’ from The Threepenny Opera with vaudeville pathos after explaining that when she first heard and fell in love with it, she did not imagine the true plot of Brecht’s play, but chooses to sing it as she first felt it.

She gifts us her own exquisite composition, the aching, dreamy ‘Moon Song’, then rounds on the audience with a mischievous glint. She tells us a friend once encouraged her to include a truly feminist song in her set. Salvant’s flagrant response is Burt Bacharach’s jaunty ‘Wives and Lovers’, torn apart and gleefully strung from the ramparts, all but unrecognisable.

She follows this up with a hell of a ride, taking ‘Until’, a ballad Sting wrote for the 2001 movie Kate and Leopold, and letting her musicians – Sullivan Fortner on piano, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and Kyle Poole blissing out on the drums – really show their chops. What a pleasure to watch them run wild, to try and follow along and to soak up the pure chemistry between them all.

The ensemble catches their breath, cruises through Salvant’s lyrically vivid original ‘Fog’, and pulls themselves together again for the familiar, accessible ‘Riding High’ before surprising us all with ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?’ (her ‘third favourite song’ from The Sound of Music), and rounding it out with ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ (her favourite).

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For encore, Salvant strides back onto the stage and delivers another totally unexpected treat, ‘Getting Married Today’, a patter song from the 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical Company. She leans up against Fortner’s piano, checks the lyrics and lets rip with such breakneck speed and obvious pleasure that the QPAC audience was jellied into both giggles and awe. And as we gathered ourselves to applaud, Salvant departed, knowing we couldn’t possibly ask for anything more.

Cecile McLorin Salvant performed at QPAC for one night only on 24 October 2023.

She will be performing at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival on 29 October, The City Recital Hall in Sydney on 31 October and the Perth International Jazz Festival on 2 November 2023.

Kate Couper Watson is a journalist, arts lover and anthropologist in training. When she’s not busy people watching or catching a show, you’ll find her seeking solace and inspiration in nature.