Barry O’Sullivan reviews her headline performance at the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival

There is no doubt that Cécile McLorin Salvant has been blessed with a unique vocal instrument. Commencing classical piano lessons at the age of five and then singing in a children’s choir at age eight, she began classical voice lessons as a teenager and progressed to university level in France, where she studied baroque and jazz music (as well as law) at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory in Aix-en-Provence. Salvant then went on to win the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition in 2010 and has received three Grammy Awards for Best Vocal Album. Since then, her international reputation and live performance career has skyrocketed.

At her performance as the headliner of the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival at the City Recital Hall, she delivered a vaudeville-like rendition of Barbara Song from Brecht and Weil’s The Threepenny Opera, a Burt Bacharach medley of the hackneyed Promises Promises and the little known and obscure The Last One To Be Loved, and the Rodgers and Hart jazz standard I Didn’t Know What Time It Was. The female troubadour twelfth-century ditty, Dame Iseut, was sung in Occitan, plus a wistful interpretation of the Kate Bush classic Wuthering Heights, and a restrained version of The Trolly Song, among the many others.

Salvant journeyed on an eclectic ride through her repertoire of originals, old-fashioned delights and show tunes, all the time holding her captive audience in the palm of her hand with her enormous talent.

Operating with what appeared to be no set playlist, her stellar trio of musicians, with the exceptionally flamboyant pianist Sullivan Fortner at the helm, reinterpreted her repertoire with agility and a stellar rhythm section of Kyle Poole on drums and Yasushi Nakamura on bass.

But the overall concert belonged to Cécile McLorin Salvant with her glorious, versatile voice and her innate ability to sing you a song and reinterpret it like you never heard it before. The voice, which has a fabulous upper and lower range that easily matches the more popular vocal greats of the past, was matched perfectly with the superb world-class sound system and acoustics of the City Recital Hall, making every word clear as a bell as she delivered humour, pathos, and passion.

For me, Salvant’s only flaw was her attempt to cover everything vocally; performance momentum could have been strengthened overall by ditching the pedestrian Bacharach selections and concentrating on a more direct path of vocal choices. That is only a minor criticism of a world-class performance from a singer with an exceptionally talented band deserving the standing ovation they received.