The billing of Cécile McLorin Salvant and Sullivan Fortner’s performance at the EFG London Jazz Festival promised to ‘redefine’ the Great American Songbook.  Arguably the Songbook isn’t calling out for redefinition; the metaphorical dog-eared tome has been loved and re-loved in both familiar and unrecognisable formats for the last one hundred years already.  And yet Salvant has the voice and presence to reimagine the well-known as bright and original: each song felt like a costume change (minus the wardrobe) as Salvant produced a range of characters both convincing and captivating.  Cynicism and mistrust cloaked The World is Mean, and in the next breath You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun was a fantastic romp through sharp-shooting singledom.

Pianist Sullivan Fortner’s approach matched the glee of Salvant’s delivery.  Whilst the lyrics wove a narrative, Fortner’s fingers knitted a counter-fable of intricate detail, leaving behind a trail of gingerbread crumbs that invited a jaunty detour into charismatic stride piano.  The spontaneity of invention (and direction) was most clear on the occasions when the seemingly improvised set-list involved murmured debate as to what might be next, only for Fortner to set out on a path that had already twisted two corners before Salvant recognised the destination.

So captivating are Salvant’s story-telling skills that it is easy to take for granted just how elastic and dynamic her vocal talent is.  Her range comfortably languished in the boomy bottom registers with barely a quaver’s notice before reaching an enchanting soprano a moment later.  Salvant can hit each with precision but the most delightful transitions are when she swoops between the two, diving and rising with acrobatic grace and matching marvel.

This might have been the first outing of the Songbook at the EFG London Jazz Festival 2019 and, whilst it won’t be the last, it is a high bar if it is to be matched.

The EFG London jazz festival continues until 24 November.

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