Cécile McLorin Salvant’s song cycle about a flesh-eating monster is a stunningly original epic that draws on myriad musical genres.
Oct. 3, 2019 2:33 pm ET
In Cécile McLorin Salvant’s “Ogresse”—performed this past weekend at Jazz at Lincoln Center (and which will be presented around the country)—the title character is a “a big black beast,” as Ms. McLorin’s libretto describes her, who is born of darkness and shadows, retreats to the depths of the forest, and develops a taste for human flesh. She ultimately meets her downfall thanks to a man who wins her confidence and breaks down her formidable resistance by singing “songs, soft and sweet.”
“Ogresse” has been described as a “song cycle,” but it isn’t quite that—it feels more like one single, extended song that unravels for roughly 90 minutes, telling a story at once epic and intimate, full of unexpected detours. Virtually everything about it is staggeringly original.
Indeed, the closest thing to a forerunner to “Ogresse” may be Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Murder Ballad,” a tall tale in blues form of crime, passion and explicit sex that the pioneering pianist and singer performed in New Orleans brothels at the turn of the 20th century. At the insistence of his patrons, who clearly enjoyed his graphic descriptions of violence and carnality, Morton kept extending the number. When he finally recorded “The Murder Ballad” in 1938, it was a half-hour long.
Ms. Salvant has performed “The Murder Ballad” in concert, including at JALC in 2017. Perhaps Morton’s blues-ballad whetted her appetite—and “Ogresse” is all about appetites—for long-form, deep-focus storytelling. Like “The Murder Ballad,” “Ogresse” feels like a simple piece, rooted in mythology and fairy tales, that grew, like Jack’s beanstalk, to epic proportions.
The libretto to “Ogresse” contains few rhymes, and there’s nothing like conventional song form. But, as in opera and film scores, themes and melodies signify specific characters and ideas, frequently reappearing to illuminate the narrative. There’s nothing like familiar blues form either, but Ms. Salvant often uses repetition in the way a traditional folk song does.
The work is accompanied by a 13-piece orchestra, including woodwinds and the classical Mivos string quartet; there are occasional jazz soloists, as well as prominent parts for banjo and melodica. Ms. Salvant’s words and music were arranged and conducted by Darcy James Argue.
It would be hard to think of a musical genre not quoted in the work, from jazz, blues, musical theater, opera and other classical forms to bluegrass, folkloric and country styles; there are parts that bring to mind everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Bill Monroe. The work also incorporates French chansons, which turn out to be rather macabre recipes and cooking instructions. Yet “Ogresse” is remarkably cohesive.
Ms. Salvant sings the entire hour-and-a-half work all by herself, though she embodies at least four perspectives along the way: those of the narrator, who tells most of the tale; a small girl named Lily (who is consumed by the monster); the unnamed man who leads the beast to her destruction; and, finally, the eponymous beast herself. Each of the four “voices” brings with it a different musical style, a different tempo, a varying set of instrumental backgrounds. It’s possible to imagine four different singers enacting each of these roles.
Just as the orchestral textures shift, so does Ms. Salvant’s vocal timbre: The folkish parts are delivered in something closer to a droning monotone (underscored by sustained notes from the cello); there are also wordless sections that are more like a coloratura soprano’s than, say, a jazz scat singer’s.
The viewpoint constantly switches from the subjective to the objective, and singing of acts of violence sometimes necessitates a detachment very similar to that found in a traditional folk ballad like “Omie Wise. ” Ms. Salvant often seems disconnected—deliberately much less expressive than when, in the past, she has sung a standard like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” or a blues number like “Sam Jones Blues.” Like a TV journalist, she’s trying to report, not comment or pass judgment. We are still rooting for the Ogresse even after she dispatches a posse of villagers who had set out to kill her; after all, it was either her or them. But we are less sympathetic after she consumes the little girl. (Her thoughts: “How can there be skin so white / So white it’s diaphanous / It’s making me ravenous. / What is it about a white woman?”)
Ms. Salvant’s long-form narrative is further enhanced by the lighting and stage design by Maruti Evans, which makes it look as if she were telling a story by campfire. “Ogresse” is an unflinching work that’s at once lyrical and disturbing (all that people-eating), of great beauty and extreme shock value, that seems to revel in its own contradictions.
—Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.
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