Review: Salvant’s Jazz Album Is A Captivating Musical Mix

This cover image released by Nonesuch Records shows “Mélusine,” by Cécile McLorin Salvant. (Nonesuch via AP)
This cover image released by Nonesuch Records shows “Mélusine,” by Cécile McLorin Salvant. (Nonesuch via AP)

“Mélusine,” Cécile McLorin Salvant (Nonesuch Records)

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s musical vocabulary is a marvel, and not only because she sings in four languages on “Mélusine.” The ambitious concept album mixes original tunes and inventive interpretations of material dating back as far as the 12th century into a potpourri that draws from jazz, Broadway, the Caribbean and more. It’s true roots music.

The album was inspired by a European fable involving a hunting accident, pivotal bathing scenes and a marriage that goes sour (spoiler alert: The wife turns into a dragon). It’s confusing but fascinating, like a dream about a dream.

Somehow, despite the unwieldy scope of the 45-minute set, Salvant never hits a false note. Whether the words are in French, English, Occitan or Haitian Creole, she sings them beautifully, navigating tricky melodies with the ease of Ella Fitzgerald and a playfulness that enhances Salvant’s astute sense of theatricality. She’s equally convincing singing about the fickle heart, sin and repentance or, say, becoming a dragon.

Piano-led accompaniment is stellar, but sometimes so spare the tap of a cymbal shifts the mood. “Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent?” evokes a late-night lament in a Left Bank café, and “D’un feu secret” is delicate baroque with synthesizers. The cabaret dance tune “Doudou” rides a Latin groove, while the swinging “Fenestra” has antecedents in Africa and Brazil.

The lyrics are compelling, whatever the language. Time is an assassin, Salvant sings. To cease loving is to cease living.

And on “La route enchantée” she tells us in flirty French: “River, my friend, I’m singing to you.” Lucky river.


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