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Cecile McLorin Salvant: Mélusine

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Cecile McLorin Salvant: Mélusine
Wynton Marsalis was right, Cecile McLorin Salvant is the sort of singer who comes along only "once in a generation or two." A MacArthur Fellow, multiple Grammy winner, and self-described eclectic, Salvant creates projects that encompass an astonishing array of idioms and historical periods, which she interrelates inventively and interweaves with original compositions. Here, she plumbs the francophone side of her repertoire. French songs have cropped up regularly in her live shows, but less on disk. Mélusine fills the gap brilliantly.

"Mélusine" is a 14th-century tale of a woman who becomes a snake from the waist down on Saturdays. Salvant engages the narrative line as a pathway for offering material in French, her first language. She describes her creative process like this: "I became fascinated with mythic ugly-beautiful goddess-monsters. Little by little, that led me to the Mélusine story—she's half-woman and half snake, similar to Aida Wedo in Haitian Vaudou. It became a challenge: Rather than just gather up French songs, could I tell the story of Mélusine by drawing on a range of songs, most in French, some in Kreyòl, even Occitan? It turns out that a lot of songs I'd been performing, if ordered a certain way, could follow the story almost exactly, even though the songs were written centuries apart."

The stunning album opener—"Est-ce Ainsi Que Les Hommes Vivent?" (Is This How Men Live?) by surrealist poet Louis Aragon and Léo Ferré—sets the scene. A quasi-ostinato in the piano and ominous heartbeat bass create a suspenseful cinematic feel from the outset. Salvant is in superb form, as throughout the release, but in the third verse Aaron Diehl's piano steals the show, becoming unexpectedly unmoored from the tonality ("wild geese were flying and screaming 'death' as they passed"). The change is mysterious and compelling. "You don't have all the details at the start," Salvant suggests. "Things are hidden. I love that."

Of equal power is the closer, a medley of two 12th-century songs, reimagined. Salvant explains: "The album ends in Occitan and Kreyòl, languages of my ancestors that I can't speak. French binds those two languages together.... Together, 'Domna N'almucs' and 'Dame Iseut' form a tenso, a debate song between two female troubadours, like a rap battle. They are about both the desire and impossibility of forgiveness when confronted with an unrepentant transgressor."

The set embraces 12th, 14th, 17th and 20th century pieces, plus well-crafted originals. All are studio tracks except "La Route Enchantée," a perfect live take on a Trenet chanson that Salvant's grandmother loved. The album's animated single, "D'un feu secret," a 17th-century French baroque air, nods to Salvant's training in baroque music (and jazz) at the Milhaud Conservatory in Aix-en-Provence. While Sullivan Fortner's decidedly 21st-century synthesizer timbres signal that no one is tied to period practices, Salvant displays increasingly intricate embellishments that are clearly informed by her studies. The attractive physical disk contains lyric translations plus Salvant's own whimsical and evocative drawings.

Mélusine is a wondrous album, top to bottom.

Track Listing

Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent?; La route enchantée; Il m'a vue nue; Dites moi que je suis belle; Doudou; Petite musique terrienne; Aida; Mélusine; Wedo; D'un feu secret; Le temps est assassin; Fenestra; Domna N'Almucs; Dame Iseut.

Personnel

Album information

Title: Mélusine | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records


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