Festival Music

Cecile McLorin

Salvant Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

Five stars

IF the best Edinburgh Festival performances are ones that confound expectations, the Usher Hall debut of jazz singer and composer Cecile McLorin Salvant, with a superb four-piece band, delivered in spades.

This reviewer’s advance reading had promised a meticulously rehearsed performance with little improvisation, as another critic had opined of a show at Ronnie Scott’s in London, and parallel listening had anticipated a focus on the centuries of French music she revisits on her most recent Nonesuch label release.

In fact we heard just two of the best tracks from Mélusine, both of her own composition, in a set that started with Burt Bacharach and visited Bertolt Brecht en route to Barbra Streisand – and was as free-wheeling and unpredictable in performance as that trajectory might lead you to suspect.

So yes, Salvant is unarguably a remarkable jazz singer, and one with a ferocious musical intelligence whose risks are carefully calibrated and a voice whose remarkable range is not just of pitch but also of timbre and style. But she is much more than that, both as a performer and a composer, so put any preconceptions you may have about that categorisation out of your mind.

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The Bacharach was Promises, Promises: a rare excursion by the composer to Broadway, but musical theatre provided much of the set and it was immediately followed by a wild ride through Meet Me in St Louis’s Trolley Song.

Salvant’s command of the canon of Judy Garland should give others pause (Rufus Wainwright might think of hanging up his ruby slippers), and in particular her take on the Wizard of Oz, bracketing Somewhere Over the Rainbow with the Scarecrow’s If I Only Had a Brain and Glinda’s Optimistic Voices before her sensational pianist, Sullivan Fortner, segued seamlessly into Gregory Porter’s No Love Dying.

If Porter is an obvious fellow-traveller in contemporary music, so too is Rhiannon Giddens, and her Build A House was another early highlight of the set.

In what may have been a nod to the Festival’s forthcoming programme there was a brilliantly abrasive and menacing version of Brecht and Weill’s Pirate Jenny from Threepenny Opera (also in the repertoire of Nina Simone, of course) and that Streisand sequence included a break-neck Don’t Rain On My Parade and Where Is It Written? from Yentl.

That Michel Legrand song includes the memorable line: “Why have the wings unless you’re meant to fly?”

At the start of a Festival that is keen on asking questions, Cecile McLorin Salvant answered that one fully on Monday evening.