Mélusine, the figure from 14th century French mythology, was a half-woman/half-snake who, when her serpentine self was spied on by her betraying lover, turned into a dragon and took flight. Mélusine, Cécile McLorin Salvant’s new album (released on March 24th), is half-French chanson/half-idiosyncratic art song that, when taken as a whole, reveals itself to be a creature of soaring majesty as well.
With 2022’s Ghost Song, Salvant revealed herself as far more than “merely” her generation’s most imaginative and thrilling jazz interpreter (with three Grammys and a MacArthur Fellowship to show for it). That album — inventive originals framed by a handful of covers, including a haunted version of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” and a take on the chirpy Wizard of Oz selection “Optimistic Voices” — stands as a distinctly original work that adheres to no genre. And with her staged cantata Ogresseshe has fashioned her own mythic exploration through senses of self with equal measures of artistic grace and power.
Mélusine shares themes and sensibilities with both, not to mention Salvant’s vision and fearlessness, but goes in its own exhilarating directions. It’s not a literal telling-in-song of the tale, but rather a cycle of impressions expressing its key turns, drawing on everything from 12th century troubadour ballads to the obscure 1978 Canadian futuristic rock-musical Starmania. Oh, and it’s sung largely in French, Haitian Kreyol and, for good measure, the ancient Occitan tongue.
As Mélusine is a mix, so is the music, often within individual pieces. The drama-laden songs of French 20th century stars Charles Trenet, Mistinguett and Léo Ferré rub elbows with desire-tinged songs of the women troubadours Iseut de Capio and Almucs de Castelnau— torch songs vs. songs originally sung by actual torch-light. Twists on cabaret piano jazz (her frequent collaborators Aaron Diehland Sullivan Fortner both make appearances) get spiked with kalimbaand synthesizers. Ghana-born percussionist Weedie Braimah accompanies Salvant on the African djembeon the 14th century ditty “Dites Moi Que Je Suis Belle” (“Tell Me That I’m Beautiful”). Fortner shifts to a Switched On Bach-ian synth for Michel Lambert’s Baroque-era air de couer“D’un Feu Secret.”
In the course, Salvant celebrates her own heritage — she’s the American-born daughter of French and Haitian parents and grew up with the mix of cultures and languages, though Occitan, the old language of a region of Southern France, she studied on Zoom for this album. One of the medieval pieces is sung in Kreyol, translated from the Occitan by Salvant’s dad, Alix. And in one of four Salvant originals, “Wedo,” our hero Mélusine meets her Haitian counterpart Aida Wedo, a key Vaudou Iwaoften portrayed as, you guessed it, half-woman/half-snake.
That latter song, “Wedo,” closes a brief trio that forms the heart of the album. Both it and the sequence’s opener, “Aida,” feature just Salvant’s layered, wordless vocals and electronic textures. Between them is the title song, with Daniel Swenberg on lute-like classical guitar, as well as the only English vocals on the album.
And that Starmania song? “Petite Musique Terrienne” (“Little Earth Song”), a Salvant favorite from childhood via her mom, about life as an outsider, is used to represent a scene in which Mélusine gives birth to 10 (!) strong but odd sons, because…of course.
Yes, there are a lot of elements put together here. The thing is, this is not about juxtaposition. It’s about synthesis and transformation. Just like Mélusine. Just like Cécile McLorin Salvant.