Spoleto Review: Cecile McLorin Salvant Talks Magic at the Charleston Gaillard Center | Spoleto


Sidonie Gabrielle Colette once said: “Music is love in search of a world.

On June 10, the French writer known as Colette was brought up on stage at the Charleston Gaillard Center by another performer who sometimes bore a similar French accent. It was singer-songwriter Cecile McLorin Salvant, and her music also seeks and discovers a new and magical world.

The performance, which was part of the Wells Fargo Jazz series at Spoleto Festival USA, also prompted this question: What is the purpose of the artist? In a world flooded with bad news and bad politics, the artist can appear dreamer at best and foolish at worst. All the hours of talent honing, practicing and touring, writing and working, where does that lead? Is it simply to provide a much needed escape from this tired old world?

For the art to really work, it has to connect with someone in the outside world. It takes courage for the artist to reveal his inner world.

Such is the genius of Salvant, whose performance is more like a magic ritual than a concert. She approached the stage with a huge smile, chunky boots and a bold ceremonial orange ruffle around her neck. She knew something the public did not yet know, and her joy at being able to open the door to her secret and magical musical realm was palpable.

It didn’t take long for the wardrobe doors to open. Coming from a Bebop sensibility, she traversed genres and musical structures with a champion’s spirit – effortlessly and on her own terms.


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The Bebop revolution of the 1950s deconstructed standard swing structures by systematically abandoning melody, harmony, chorus, chorus, tempo, and rhythm, and reconstructing them at will. Salvant takes this experience even further by distorting these elements, as well as gender and language in order to tell his stories.

She has built a magic pumpkin carriage from imagination and sound and although it seems whimsical and childish at first glance, this impression obscures her total control. It takes a true magician to create something from an open space and an even bigger one to make this work appear effortless.

This artist doesn’t try to hit her listeners over the head with vocal gymnastics or emphasis. There are no Disneyesque forced key changes mid-song here. Everything seems so simple and internally consistent. You see, it’s easy, she hints with a smile, to have found the fountain of youth, and not to explain, but to incorporate the magic.

Of course, ease is an illusion. She has gathered expert musicians in her court, where she is both queen and jester. His new album “Ghost Song” has received critical acclaim. She won Grammy Awards for three consecutive releases. She has appeared in Spoleto and other festivals around the world. She also has a law degree and studied baroque and jazz. She sings in French and Occitan.

More importantly, she has attracted top musicians to share her journey.

Her pianist, Sullivan Fortner, is absolutely brilliant and “even knows the songs he doesn’t know”, as she announced on stage. He’s creating this magical world at the same time as her, and while he pulls off some brilliant stride and classic bits, he’s also comfortable doing nothing. His work is at the service of the song. Sullivan’s humor and playfulness gave us respite from the wonderment of his talent.

The other players are just as talented. Bassist Yasushi Nakamura had beautiful tone and total control, and was able to channel every emotion as needed. Guitarist Marvin Sewell played with subtlety and know-how, offering patterns of bossa nova, blues and jazz. Sometimes he, too, remained silent and listened, when doing nothing at all was the most important thing.

Salvant percussionist Keita Ogawa played kit, cajone, and tambourine expertly, blending in and creating the sonic space with others equally, evenly, and brilliantly. Sometimes the whole group would scream in passages, then blend into a quiet area, then wander into another genre, again.

Everything they did served to produce Salvant’s vision. His stories were told through the air to music, a whirlwind of sound transporting us to his colorful land of pure imagination.

That’s not to say that Salvant’s music isn’t difficult. Much of the program took us into his unique musical territory. Familiar landmarks raced past or dissolved on contact.

She shared her own work, mostly, rather than standards. At times, the sonic complexity was disorienting, and while I personally appreciate the shock of the news, I can sympathize with listeners who might be unprepared for the journey. That’s what an art festival is for, isn’t it?

Now, some may wonder if this public display of virtuosity serves us in the non-magical world. Here, Salvant again plays the jester, telling the truth to the court. As the program progressed, she addressed our human concerns with her art. She let the music convey her message.


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Through the imagery of ghosts and fog, myth and history, she did what every artist tries to do – tell truths about the human condition through history. Most of the songs were about love. Although the artist starts from his own truth, he must connect it to us.

Salvant is also an expert in this field. She made us travel. Around the time we felt lost in Oz, she brought us to our senses with a song she wrote in the summer of 2020 called “I Lost My Mind,” which is relatable. She also covered “The World is a Mean” by Kurt Weil.

In the end, many, like me, may have felt a little overwhelmed visiting his personal magical tale world. Salvant knows it too, she knew she had to tie it with a knot, bringing us back to the familiar. She had to do it with a little glimpse of hope, nostalgia and history, so as an encore, she sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.

It expressed our common hope and our dream for a better world. It was beautiful and perfect and an expert evening of inspiring music.

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