Essential New Music: Cécile McLorin Salvant’s “Dreams And Daggers”

The irreproachably hip, fiendishly virtuosic Cécile McLorin Salvant continues her one-woman revitalization of the once-grand vocal-jazz tradition with another fine showcase for her savvy and adventurous approach to both song selection and interpretation. Dreams And Daggers is at once a step forward and something of a victory lap for the fêted chanteuse: It’s a double album, but that’s less a signal of expanding ambitions than an opportunity for Salvant—and, especially, her top-flight backing trio—to stretch out over an eclectic set of standards, nearly all of it recorded live at the Village Vanguard. The erudite curation favors Salvant’s well-established modes: ribald and/or proto-feminist pre-war blues; smirking takes on outmoded would-be kitsch (“If A Girl Isn’t Pretty”); sprightly romps by folks like Berlin, Dorough and Loesser; lesser-heard ballads; fascinating artifacts like Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes aria “Somehow I Never Could Believe.” She makes it all her playground, offering sometimes acrobatic but always sensitive readings. Regrettably, Salvant’s own compositions—often the poetically affecting highlights of previous albums—take a backseat, limited to a handful of brief, haunting vignettes (with gorgeous string arrangements) interspersed throughout, which suggest a variety of themes (desire, uncertainty, gender, race) without quite elucidating them.

—K. Ross Hoffman