Cécile McLorin Salvant, "For One to Love" (Mack Avenue)
Salvant has the type of voice that could lead a singer to stop trying, and the fact that she's only working and thinking harder demonstrates just what a talent she really is. Born in Miami to a French mother and a Haitian father, Salvant first turned heads five years ago, when she won the prestigious Thelonious Monk jazz competition. In 2013, she released "WomanChild," a Grammy-nominated collection of standards and lesser-known material on which the beauty of her singing wasn't an end goal so much as a comfortable entry point into a deep consideration of the songs and their meanings.
Now Salvant, 26, is back with an even stranger and more beautiful follow-up, which again mixes music you're likely to know ("The Trolley Song") with stuff you haven't heard before, including five arresting Salvant originals. Her feel for subtext makes her one of the smartest (and funniest) interpreters going. In "Stepsisters' Lament," from Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella," the wide-open quality of her voice makes you believe she's identifying with the song's narrator, who can't understand why men routinely opt for "a frail and fluffy beauty" over "a solid girl like me."
But of course Salvant is also inspecting the Broadway tune's musty sexual politics, an effort she redoubles in "Wives and Lovers," the '60s Burt Bacharach-Hal David hit about how married women mustn't forget to keep tantalizing their husbands. "Day after day, there are girls at the office," she sings, lowering her voice to a confiding murmur, "And men will always be men." Behind her, Salvant's invaluable pianist, Aaron Diehl, plays a creeping minor-key figure that lends a touch of paranoia — think "Mad Men" re-imagined as a kind of workplace thriller.
You can sense Salvant further pondering the way men and women interact, and how gender roles have evolved (or not), in "Growlin' Dan" and "What's the Matter Now?," a pair of vintage blues in which she cycles through accents and vocal mannerisms as if she were Nicki Minaj. Does all this make Salvant sound like an academic or a drama kid? Either title suits a singer for whom music seems part of some larger cultural project. But just as you think you've got her pegged, she hits you with her song "Left Over," a devastating voice-and-piano confession about a woman infatuated with a guy who may not even know her name — a woman so desperate that she welcomes the presence of the guy's girlfriend because of what it does to his face.
"To see him smile, the way he smiles when she's near," Salvant sings, her voice cracking. "To get what's left over, his surplus of love."
It's powerful enough to give you pause before you listen again. But you will.
Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times