I think there is an inverse rule of proportionality regarding song remakes. This inverse rule reigns supreme when the covers in question come from the Great American Songbook or the classic soul genres. And the songs most likely to be remade are the songs that need to be covered the least – if at all. So we get scores of remakes of “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “My Girl.”
Artists remake these songs for genuine personal and artistic reasons and for cynical commercial reasons. The cynical reasons can also be used to explain why R&B hits and oldies station in my town played “Love Letters” 20 times a day a couple of years ago – focus groups told them that people really liked it. Those focus groups were right. “Love Letters” was a good song, but I already own any record that I want to hear 20 times a day. I own at least four versions of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and regularly listen to at least four other versions on YouTube. I’m not saying someone won’t make a version I like – Jeffrey Osborne has a good version on his latest album. But still, I’d like to hear something new – even if it’s old.
That’s why I have to give it up to newcomer Cecile McLorin Salvant and her album WomanChild. “What a Little Moonlight Can” do is the only standard that has been in the public sphere recently – unless you count the folk song “John Henry.” But there are few people who gave that saga of the battle between man and machine the jazzy treatment it receives from Salvant.
Salvant digs into our historical music crates and finds some gems that have been tragically neglected and exposes them to light. It doesn’t matter if the composers are well known such as Fats Waller or Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart or something by long forgotten Vaudevillian Bert Williams; Salvant did not make easy choices. The easy choice would be to cover Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin” rather than “Jitterbug Waltz.” A singer thinking about covering a Rodgers and Hart tune will likely go for “The Lady is a Tramp,” or “My Funny Valentine.” I love them both. However, Salvant’s Sarah Vaughan-esque rendition of “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was,” had me wondering why hasn’t this song been recorded more often.
Salvant, a native of Miami who is the daughter of a French mother and Haitian father seems to approach her musical choices with an ethnomusicologist’s desire entertain and educate. That kind of scholarly instinct should not be surprising from a woman who studied law and voice in France.
The lyricism in found in tunes such as “Jitterbug Waltz” intrigued Salvant because she relishes a chance to wrap her lush vocals around the track’s witty wordplay in a song filled with vivid descriptions and double entendre. She also wanted to resurrect the music of an African-American composer from a bygone era, such as Williams, who was a best selling composer in the sheet music days. Williams’ “Nobody” is a theatrical number that tells the story of a person who can’t find a helping hand. Salvant plays up the number’s Vaudeville qualities by singing lyrics that put her in a situation where she needs help and asks who will come to her rescue. The punctuates the end of the verse with a drawn out “nooooobody.”
Salvant also selected songs that fell out of favor because of evolving political sensibilities, such as the 1934 tune “You Bring Out the Savage in Me.” Valadia Snow recorded the song in 1933. Actress Frances Day performed it in a film a year later. This song came out at a time when people referred to jazz as “jungle music” and was referred to along with the blues as “race music.” However, it’s a great song and Salvant’s decision to include it on this album in 2013 forces the listener to ask if “You Bring Out the Savage in Me” retains it’s sting considering some of the truly offensive songs that have been released in recent years.
There is so much that can be said about the covers Salvant included on WomanChild that it’s easy to overlook originals - such as the title track - that are so enjoyable in their own right. To sum up, WomanChild is a record that works as education and entertainment and, as a unorthodox new release in 2013, is as delightful as it is unique. Highly Recommended
By Howard Dukes