On Cécile McLorin Salvant's 2017 album, Dreams and Daggers, she paired with pianist Sullivan Fortner for a rousing and saucy live rendition of Bessie Smith's "You've Got to Give Me Some." It was one of the most delightful tracks on an album that earned the singer her second Grammy Award. Salvant and Fortner take that charming, in-the-moment chemistry even further on her fifth album, 2018's The Window. Once again shifting between studio recordings and several live performances made at New York's Village Vanguard, Salvant and Fortner commune over a deftly curated and deeply enveloping mix of standards, covers, and one Salvant original, "À Clef," sung entirely in French. There are several impressive aspects to The Window that reveal themselves as you listen. First, while there are certainly songs people will recognize here, these are lesser-performed standards like Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz's "By Myself" and the Nat King Cole number "Wild Is Love." They aren't unknown, but certainly not in the canon of songs you hear often. Even when Salvant and Fortner make a populist choice, as on their heartbreakingly delicate handling of "Somewhere" from West Side Story, the results are nuanced and harmonically expansive. Elsewhere, they explore even more unexpected fare, burrowing deeply into the Dori Caymmi co-write "Obsession" and bringing on board saxophonist Melissa Aldana for a haunting, impressionistic reading of vocalist Norma Winstone and pianist Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks." Secondly, for a singer who has drawn well-earned comparisons to the pantheon of great vocalists with names like Ella, Aretha, and Billie, Salvant has an almost magical ability to make each song her own. Her opening take on Stevie Wonder's "Visions" sounds completely unlike the soulful 1973 original, yet somehow perfect as she imbues it with her own dusky, 1950s cabaret intimacy. Of course, Fortner is due equal credit for this transformative quality. A virtuoso in his own right, he has a pristine touch and lithe improvisational skills, drawing tastefully upon classical, post-bop, and stride styles, often within the same song. That he and Salvant play with such élan, but still manage to never get in each other's way, speaks to their immense skill and creative empathy. Together, they play with an amorously creative and emotionally varied cornucopia of energies -- so much so that you almost forget it's just the two of them. Despite that virtuosic spark, The Window remains an intensely intimate listen, as if Salvant and Fortner are playing just for you.
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