The most radical thing a jazz singer could do in 2018 is stick to the basics. One might expect Cécile McLorin Salvant, who picked up Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammys for each of her past two albums and is riding a wave of mainstream acclaim, to team with a buzzy producer or attempt some other kind of savvy crossover. But on The Window, the wise, virtuosic and subtly subversive 29-year-old singer opts for a setting so stark it can almost seem abstract: For the majority of this part-studio, part-live LP, she’s accompanied only by pianist/organist Sullivan Fortner. While the tunes here (plenty from Salvant’s Great American Songbook wheelhouse, plus Stevie Wonder’s “Visions,” and two sung in French, including one written by the singer) are mostly love songs of a sort, Salvant rarely seems interested in setting a mood of cozy romance.
On Buddy Johnson’s “Ever Since the One I Love’s Been Gone,” she moves daringly between high and low registers, even sneaking in a hint of a growl, as she embodies a state of desperate pining. And on West Side Story‘s “Somewhere,” Fortner’s remarkable accompaniment helps to bring the song from a dreamlike hush to a dramatic, impressionistic instrumental peak and back. Saxophonist Melissa Aldana, Salvant’s bandmate in the formidable collective Artemis, turns up on lengthy album closer “The Peacocks,” heightening the album’s searching mood with a breathy, poetic solo and shadowing the singer during the song’s swooping climax.
There’s playful material here too (“I’ve Got Your Number,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Gentleman Is a Dope” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You”), but overall Salvant seems intent on teasing out the grey areas and tougher truths in these songs — the way love can sting as much as it soothes, for example — to generally stunning effect.
“I am not interested in the idea of relevance,” Salvant said in a press release for The Window. “I am interested in the idea of presence.” In refusing to pander, either to easy nostalgia or to current trends, she touches on something timeless.