There’s always something sort of magical about the Spoleto Festival’s
jazz concerts in the College of Charleston’s
Cistern Yard. It’s already a beautiful outdoor space (the college holds its commencement exercises there) and for the Wells Fargo Jazz Series, the surrounding buildings are aglow in red, blue and magenta lights. Floodlights also pick up the moss that’s elegantly draped over the oak tree branches.
It’s a beautiful, romantic setting, but what makes this yearly concert series so special is really the remarkable talents that perform in i -- talents like Cécile McLorin Salvant
From the moment Salvant took the stage Saturday night, it was clear that she was no typical jazz diva. Instead of the de rigeur little black dress, Salvant took to the stage in a breezy, blue-flowered jumpsuit, sunny yellow heels and her trademark thick, white glasses. She began by singing the standard "Sometimes I'm Happy (Sometimes I'm Blue)," a love song that she sang, not to mythical lover, but directly to the audience. “My disposition,” she sang, “depends on you,” she sang with a sweeping gesture to the audience.
Hopefully Salvant’s disposition fared well, because from where I sat the audience was enthralled by her stunning voice. Her singing is bright and whimsical one moment, playing around in her upper register; the next moment she is sinking into deep, soulful notes.
On the way out of the Cistern Yard I heard fellow concertgoers comparing Salvant to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and other jazz greats. She certainly evokes the spirit of those greats in her songs, but there’s something else about Salvant’s take on jazz standards – a sense of humor – sometimes playful, sometimes ironic – that pervades her interpretations.
Take for instance the bespectacled singer’s version of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” where she sings “Are the stars out tonight, I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright,” before replacing the title line with a mournful “because I can’t really see” as she squints up at the sky. It was a charming moment – and one I particularly appreciated as I pushed my own thick-rimmed glasses back up the bridge of my nose.
But for all of Salvant’s humor, she is just as good at the serious stuff. Her composition, “Child Woman” was a moving, soulful ballad about a young woman staggering through life, and her rendition of “The Ballad of John Henry’s Hammer” brought a searing depth to the classic folk song.