On Ghost Song  Cécile McLorin Salvant Finds Reflective Pleasure In Pain

Surfacing on Nonesuch with Ghost Song, a personal, highly introspective album that intersperses covers and seven originals in service of a cautionary look at love and love lost, the always unpredictable Cécile McLorin Salvant dispenses for the most part with standard jazz backing, replacing it with imaginative instrumentation and ear-catching production techniques more reminiscent of a rock album, to deliver a series of fanciful mind flights sure to delight longtime fans and win her new ones.

The album opens and closes with mournful, solitary mountaintop expressions, with the opening one dissolving into a sparsely arranged (electric bass and synth) cover of “Wuthering Heights”, Kate Bush’s song of abandonment that jump cuts to (of all things) a double-time version of “Optimistic Voices” (from “The Wizard of Oz”) and from there to the searing reality of Gregory Porter’s resolute “No Love Dying” backed by piano, flute, banjo and percussion.

Once past the expressions of others and softened yet strengthened by Porter’s resolve, Salvant gets to the self-penned title tune and the heart of the matter: “I tried to keep our love going strong, but no matter how hard I tried, something went wrong”— a blues delivered after a beginning reminiscent of the album’s opening and closing plaintive wails. When Salvant has finished, the young voices of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus repeat the chorus as if to prepare the next generation for upcoming heartache.

Past the worst pain, Salvant digs into the astutely crafted Lambert, Hendricks and Ross-like “Obligation”, an academic analysis of love, sex, duties and obligations. As the side begins with a cover, it ends with one too: “Until” from the 2001 film “Kate and Leopold”, Sting’s tribute to the powers of love and love lost.

The side over, you’ll feel not as if you’ve been listening to a love-lost narrative or songs searching for the meaning of love and of relationships, but rather that you’ve experienced it all ricocheting through the canyons of the story teller’s mind.

Side two’s opener is the tragic-comic “I Lost My Mind”. Other than “can you help me find my mind?” those are the entirety of the lyrics Salvant repeats in a mechanical/computerized voice V2 Schneider would appreciate, backed by the singer on piano and Aaron Diehl on what sounds like an enormous church pipe organ in a larger reverberant space, because that’s what it is (it’s also the recording venue for the album’s opening and closing moments). It’s an understandable breather and a “time-out”.

Finally, on “Moon Song”, you get traditionally arranged jazz vocal balladry. Of course, there’s more, all of which is as eclectically drawn as what preceded it. The album concludes with a memorable a capella rendering of the mournful traditional ballad “Unquiet Grave” that metaphorically lays to rest for good the relationship, or the exploration of one and the turmoil expressed therein.

Pulling off this trippy, heavily produced adventure—both in the arrangements and the sonic architecture required skilled production and engineering hands. Salvant produced, pianist Sullivan Fortner co-produced, and Todd Whitelock—the engineering and producing talent behind most if not all of the singer’s exceptionally fine sounding albums—co-produced and mixed. Whitelock’s producing brilliance serves Salvant much as Roy Halee did Simon and Garfunkel and Simon’s solo work. He’s indispensable.

In a decade plus worth of memorable Grammy Award winning albums, this one is probably Salvant’s most fully realized, most varied, and so her best—and that’s facing very stiff competition! It’s sonically stupendous as well. Add attractive gatefold packaging and a quiet Pallas German pressing and you have a “must have” album.

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KLW's picture

with an almost operatic/musical track organization. Multiple music genre references abound woven into a tapestry of pure music. McLorin has a lovely voice, a bit Melancholic, at times, but very Lovely none the less. Went and purchased this record immediately....same day as Fremer's review. Glad I did :)

Glotz's picture

Via Qobuz high-rez. Very nice depth of field perspective and every bit worth a 10.

Her play on Kate Bush's song is very different and rhythmically interesting. Her voice also has the range and jazz chops to hold my interest on quite a few of the songs here.

Chemguy's picture

Whoa, what a talent! A pleasurable listen. The vinyl is nice...a digital recording, to be sure, but lots of air around the instruments. Michael says the record is heavily produced...in a noncritical way...but I don’t think it is at all; I find it sparsely arranged, for the most part, and a light touch applied on the mixing board.

Well worth getting!

peterg's picture

Question from a Cecile fanatic and vinyl noob, just returning after a 30 year hiatus--I love my digital Ghost Song, and wonder if vinyl would be even better. But I note that unlike your vinyl re-release reviews where you compare new vinyl to old vinyl, you do not comment on sound quality of current vinyl to current digital (either here or your Lori Lieberman piece of a couple of years ago). Did you compare the vinyl to the digital release? If yes, your thoughts? Thanks (Also, thanks in general for an extremely helpful site)