Rarely sounds like anything but a conversation between friends.
Surely singer Cécile McLorin Salvant and her accompanist Sullivan Fortner sat down at some point to decide what songs they were going to interpret for their album The Window. But you’d never guess from listening to it. Songs seem to pop into their head as they’re being played, so freewheeling are the selections here and such impish liberties do they take with them. A Stevie Wonder song! Next—an Aretha Franklin song! How about some French cabaret? A Brazilian ballad? I thought of those Alan Lomax recordings of old bluesmen who seemed surprised to have a tape machine pointed in their face and scrabbled out the first standards that came to mind. Or Prince on his Piano & a Microphone tape, stabbing out jazzy abstractions until something resembled a song he liked. Or that Alex Chilton live album where the power went out and someone handed him an acoustic and he played what he wanted. A song can be both a transcendent work of art and something musicians can bang out as an exercise to kill a few minutes. The Window understands this, and despite its epic 70-minute scope, it rarely sounds like anything but a conversation between friends.
It’s fun to hear them work together. Salvant always sounds like she’s having fun, which means some of the more serious songs are less convincing but that ditties like “Obsession” or “The Gentleman Is A Dope” are delightful. Fortner sounds like he’s channeling a massive reserve of pent-up energy even as his fingers land precisely on the keys; I imagine a kid banging on a piano with abandon wishes what came out could sound like this. Salvant talks a lot of shit here, mostly at no-good men, which means The Window is a crowd-pleaser. It’s easy to root for her sass, especially if you relate to the great jazz theme of falling in love with schlubs against your better judgment. The best moment on the record might be when she sings “so tall” on “Trouble Is A Man” in a way that’s both lovesick and knowing, letting herself briefly disappear into fantasy before remembering what a jerk the guy is. Though her singing style can be outré, she’s such a gregarious, likable figure that audiences who might find jazz singing too remote or self-absorbed might be able to connect with her more readily than with a Billie Holiday or a Dinah Washington.
Though most of the album was cut in the studio, a few of these songs were recorded live at the vaunted Village Vanguard. They’re generally less effective than the studio cuts: Salvant isn’t a subtle singer and errs on the side of oversinging, perhaps enervated by the presence of a crowd. “Ever Since the One I Love’s Been Gone” in particular devolves into caterwauling. More intriguing is a take on “Somewhere,” that West Side Story chestnut we’ve heard a hundred times. Fortner starts by teasing a snippet of “America” from that musical, and in the distance we hear a knowing chuckle from an audience. But if that laugh indicates a smug sense of superiority over something as time-tested as a Sondheim standard, no doubt those smirks would melt away as Salvant tears into the song. Her version is confident but a little wavery, not as quixotic as versions of that song tend to be, an invitation rather than a fantasy. If we know the story it’s even more devastating, just because she sounds so confident in a happy ending. Besides, it’s an appropriate song for an America gone to shit, the implication being that “somewhere” is “anywhere but here.”
But The Window doesn’t feed us any explicit political intentions. Though it’s bold in making no distinction between Cole Porter and Stevie Wonder, juke-joint blues and the Parisian cabaret, it feels more like a conversation between two music lovers than a world-hugging statement of purpose. Albums this long tend to be either epics or unhurried jam sessions, but The Window is a bit of both. And it’s not a moment too long. We want them to keep jamming, deep into the night.