Once-in-a-Generation Jazz Singer | Convening of the Guitar Gods
on May 18, 2022
Each month we highlight a musical artist or group that you may not have heard of and/or venue for discovering new music. This month we put the spotlight on Cécile McLorin Salvant, a rising star and one of the best female jazz singers of our time … or any time. And the Crossroads Guitar Festivals, held every few years (six festivals between 1999 and 2019), showcasing some of the world's best guitar players, across many genres.
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When I would visit my dad, when he lived in the north end of downtown Seattle, I would occasionally drag him over to Dimitiriou’s Jazz Alley to listen to whichever act was playing there. One evening (in 2014 or 2015, as I recall) the artist was Cécile McLorin Salvant, an up-and-coming jazz singer who I hadn’t heard of at the time, but decided to check out. Boy, was I glad I did.
Incarnating a Century of Jazz
Salvant reminds me a bit of Billie Holiday; not as an impersonator of Lady Day, but just her emotional range and depth of expression, as well as similarities in tone. Salvant’s virtuosity and purposeful execution reminds me of Ella Fitzgerald. I’ve also heard her compared to Sarah Vaughan. Lest you think comparisons to three of the greatest jazz singers of the twentieth century are mere hyperbole, it’s not just me who puts her in this league. Wynton Marsalis1 said of Salvant, “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.” To me, it seems she has assimilated the last 120 years of jazz, amalgamated and mixed it up, and remade it into her own.
Salvant is a real performer. She gets into character for each song and really tells the story, going through an emotional arc or being playful as called for. One of the songs I particularly recall from that night I saw her was Nobody, originally written and recorded by Bert Williams in 1906. I loved Salvant’s playful timing and entertaining interpretation which made it a delight to listen to. You can hear a bit of that in this 2015 live performance of Nobody at Detroit Jazz Festival.
McLorin Salvant performs with top-notch musicians. I’ve been particularly impressed with the two main pianists she has played with. From 2012 until about 2015 or so, she collaborated closely with Aaron Diehl, developing and co-evolving a repertoire and style together. From around 2016 to now, she has been collaborating and performing a lot with Sullivan Fortner. Both of these pianists are world-class virtuosic musicians who play very conversationally with Salvant—one of my favorite modes of music making, where the musicians are closely attuned to each other, instantly responding to what the other is playing and taking a journey together, resulting in music that is new, fresh, and different each time. NPR did an excellent interview in 2016 with Salvant and Fortner, interspersed with them playing, that really shows what was (at the time) their budding musical relationship and how they work together.
Here are some more performances you could check out:
Residency Concert at New England Conservatory—Something a bit different, a 15-minute concert with students at NEC, recorded in the middle of the pandemic (everyone wearing masks). You can see Salvant really getting into it, appreciating and enjoying each musician as they solo.
2018 Tiny Desk Concert—18 minutes, just Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner, a real voyage they take you on in an intimate setting.
Heineken Jazz Festival 2018—An entertaining hour+ set playing in San Sebastian, Spain with Sullivan Fortner (piano), Paul Sikivie (bass), and Kyle Poole (drums).
If you haven’t really been into female jazz vocalists, Cécile McLorin Salvant would be a great place to see if this is a genre you can appreciate. If you are already into Ella, Sarah, Billie, Nina, Carmen, et al, then there’s a good chance you may have already heard of Salvant … if not, I urge you to dig in and listen!
Crossroads Guitar Festival
What do the following people have in common: BB King, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck, Keith Urban, Johnny Winter, Albert Lee, Keith Richards, Derek Trucks, John McLaughlin, Steve Vai, and Jerry Douglas?
First, they are all legendary guitar players. Second, they have all played at one or more of the Crossroads Guitar Festivals. The Crossroad Festivals are a series of six festivals, held over the past 23 years, featuring dozens of the world’s greatest guitar players, performing with their bands and each other. These are benefit concerts with the proceeds helping fund the Crossroads Centre, a drug rehab treatment center in Antigua, founded by Eric Clapton.
While some of the musicians playing at Crossroads are superstars and many are well-known, I can almost guarantee that you will discover some players that you have never heard of. For example, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who plays classical Indian music on a custom-built acoustic guitar (complete with sympathetic strings like a sitar has). Or Quinn Sullivan, a young blues guitarist who released his first album at the age of 12. Or Sonny Landreth, a virtuosic slide blues guitarist that may be familiar to aficionados of that genre but not to some others. My point is that listening to these concerts is a great way to discover guitarists you didn’t know about. Or rediscover some that you did know about. For example, I had heard of Jeff Beck from his time with the Yardbirds (where he replaced Eric Clapton). But I didn’t follow him very closely or listen to him much after that. After listening to his set at the 2007 Crossroads, I saw how his playing has evolved and what magic he coaxes out of that guitar. I have now become a fan of his and have sought out other great performances of his (such as this amazing set at Ronnie Scott’s). In that same set with Jeff Beck at Crossroads 2007, I heard for the first time a young prodigy bass player named Tal Wilkenfeld, another exciting discovery for me.
Here are a couple of suggested performances to check out from Crossroads:
Jeff Beck at Crossroads 2007—an entirely instrumental set, playing with Tal Wilkenfeld (bass), Vinnie Colaiuta (considered by many drummers to be the world’s best living drummer), and Jason Rebello (keyboards). Starts with a ridiculous looking but heartfelt and respect-filled introduction by Bill Murray, (wearing an absurd afro wig). The video and audio quality in this recording are so-so, but the music is great. A couple of standout cuts include Stratus, Behind the Veil, Led Boots, and Big Block.
Midnight in Harlem—Tedeschi-Trucks Band at Crossroads 2010—this haunting song, written by Derek Trucks (lead guitar) and Mike Mattison (background vocals), showcases the soulful singing of Susan Tedeschi, the inspired soaring guitar of Derek Trucks, and the musicality of the whole band.
If you are interested in listening to extended recordings of these concerts, here are some further links:
1999 Eric Clapton & Friends in Concert: A Benefit for The Crossroads Centre at Antigua—While the 2004 concert was the first ‘official’ Crossroads Festival, this concert in Madison Square Garden in 1999 kicked it all off. This concert was not so much a guitar-centric festival but more of an all-star benefit concert including performance by David Sanborn, Sheryl Crow, Mary J. Blige, and Bob Dylan. The backing band includes world class musicians, such as drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Nathan East.
2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival—Over three hours long, this well-produced concert recording includes great performances interspersed with commentary from many of the players. The first three and half minutes is a montage that gives you a taste of the many styles and players you’ll be exposed to. Then it kicks off with Eric Clapton performing “Cocaine.” A few cuts highlighting the variety on stage include:
Sweet Home Chicago—This blues classic shows Buddy Guy’s uninhibited performance singing, with the contrasting guitar solos of Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughan, and Hubert Sumlin.
Rag Bihag—Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, classical Indian music, played on a custom guitar.
Tones for Elvin Jones—Jazz fusion by John McLaughlin, accompanied only by two drummers, the excellent Dennis Chambers on the kit and the world’s best tabla player (IMHO), Zakir Hussain. Includes great back and forth between the two drummers.
Josie—Larry Carlton playing one of our favorite Steely Dan songs, with an accompanying horn section.
Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy—17-minute cut of Jeff Beck (with Rhonda Smith on Bass, Jason Rebello on keys, and Narada Michael Walden on drums) playing Hammerhead and Nessun dorma, and Buddy Guy (along with Jonny Lang & Ronnie Wood) playing Five Long Years.
While writing this, I ran across this clip of Marcus King and 14-Year-Old Asher Belsky jamming at Crossroads 2019, just the two of them (pictured below). I like the maturity of Asher’s playing; more into creating tasteful melodic lines rather than trying to show off how fast he can play (we already knew Marcus is great). Asher will be someone to watch develop and one more example for me of how these Crossroad concerts can be a place of discovery for all of us listeners.
1Wynton Marsalis is one of the greatest living trumpet players, has won nine Grammy awards (the only musician to win a Grammy Award in both jazz and classical during the same year) and was the youngest musician ever admitted to Tanglewood. -- Return to article text above
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