Bahia by Ana Carla Maza; Ghost Song by Cécile McLorin Salvant.
by Ana Carla Maza
(Persona Editorial Records, CD, DL)
Born in Cuba, Ana Carla Maza’s Bahía is a homage to a district in Havana that throbs with a multiplicity of musical styles – son, jazz, samba, bossa nova are a few of them – which she carries into her own compositional palate. Maza also adds influences from her classical cello studies in France to this musical heritage. Bahía is a tribute to the way in which these musics overlay one another to create newly balanced experiences each time.
Maza comes from a fiercely musical family – her Chilean father, Carlos Maza, is a pianist, her Cuban mother, Mirza Sierra, a guitarist – and so it’s not surprising that several musical influences run through Bahía. What makes this album – her third for this label – special is its utter directness. It is a single-handed enterprise – Maza plays cello and sings in French and Spanish – recorded in a single take. There is an elegant simplicity to it. ‘La Habana’, the opening song, is a beautifully spacious work that expresses, through thrumming cello lines, a yearning of home in its soaring vocal. We hear not only classical references (there is a tiny bit of Bach elsewhere on the album), but flamenco, tango (there’s an homage to Astor Piazzolla, with the cello imitating the accordion) and French chanson (‘A Tomar Café’ is a lovely example). Poignantly, Maza ends with a song for her childhood piano teacher, Miriam Valdes, who died from Covid-19 last year. The song is a beautiful five minutes, in which Maza briefly revisits her early five-finger exercises before heading up the scale to a virtuosity that she dedicates to her old teacher.
by Cécile McLorin Salvant
(Nonesuch Records, CD, LP, DL)
It’s a very, very brave singer who would even think of covering ‘Wuthering Heights’ but here comes Cécile McLorin Salvant, and her take on Kate Bush’s timeless song about ghosts, yearning and strangeness – even in the truncated version presented here – is a stunner. Ghost Song is the debut album from Salvant, who is of French and Haitian heritage, though she was raised in the US, and also a thriving visual artist. That it has been picked up by such a major label as Nonesuch is an indication of great things to come.
For the moment, though, Salvant bookends this debut with two songs of death and haunting: Bush’s take on the Emily Brontë novel and ‘Unquiet Grave’, the old English folksong covered by luminaries far and wide. Salvant spooks up both songs by delivering them in the unaccompanied Irish sean-nós style (though there is minimal instrumentation on ‘Heights’ along with some sound effects). They are stark, unworldly, laden with emotion, and their positioning, as the first and last tracks, suggests that the other 10 songs are, in their own ways, also ghost songs. This is most obvious in the title track, which opens with a flattened blues voice and ends, gloriously, with a youth chorus. Salvant’s instrumentation is often jazzy (the excellent keyboards of Sullivan Fortner feature in many of the songs) until it isn’t. This swerving – to folk song, to cumbia, to blues – strengthens so much that is already extraordinary here. Worth checking out is ‘Dead Poplar’, a setting of a letter from Alfred Stieglitz to Georgia O’Keefe, and a breakneck visit to Weill and Brecht’s ‘The World Is Mean’, which is so agile that it blows other contenders off the stage.