The Vast, Versatile Range Of Cécile McLorin Salvant

Nov 18, 2017
Originally published on November 18, 2017 7:15 pm

Cécile McLorin Salvant has been called "the finest jazz singer to emerge in the last decade."

Seven years ago, when she was just 20, Salvant won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition and her career took off. She was greeted by critical acclaim and prestigious awards, including a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for her 2015 record, For One to Love.

The songs on her latest album, Dreams and Daggers, released Sept. 29, range from a 1968 show tune from Funny Girl to a 1928 down-home blues song by Bessie Smith, showcasing her wide musical arsenal.

"I am so excited that there is so much in American music," Salvant says. "There are so many different styles, and vibes and situations. And I embrace that, and I love that."

Salvant grew up in Miami, the daughter of a Haitian doctor and a French mother. As a girl, she was trained in classical voice. After high school, she spent a year at a conservatory in the south of France where she began to study jazz.

"Early on, I started becoming really, really interested in these voices in jazz that were coming more from the tradition of blues and folk music," she says. "Where it doesn't really matter how pristine and agile the voice is, as long as there's a story being conveyed."

Jazz journalist Fred Kaplan, who profiled Salvant in The New Yorker earlier this year, believes that she has a masterly grasp on exhibiting a wide emotional range in her music.

"Her blues are blue. Her swings swing," Kaplan says. "She has vast, almost operatic range."

He also says that Salvant digs into a lyric like an actress.

"She finds things in a lyric that other jazz singers kind of glide by," he says. "'Mad About the Boy' — if you just looked at the lyrics, you'd think this is really a song written by a crazy person. Or a song narrated by a crazy person. And she gets into that. It is a mad song."

Salvant's digging usually brings a modern perspective to old songs. On the record, she sings a Josephine Baker song in French, "Si j'etais blanche" ("If I Were White"), in which the singer asks, "Must I be white to please you better?"

"This is a song that is almost 100 years old," she says. "And when I heard that song my first reaction was, 'This is hilarious and this is so bold.' And I felt that before, you know, wanting to be white. I know what that feels like, growing up. You have Barbie Dolls, and you have — you watch a TV show, you watch a movie, and you want to be the blonde princess and you're not."

Salvant may not be the blonde princess, but she has enjoyed a fairy tale career. It's been nothing but rave reviews and accolades — and she's only 28 years old.

"The great frustration is, of course, that there are not enough people my age, people younger than me in the audience," she says. "There are not enough black people in the audience. Not that I have any problem with any other demographic but, you know, that's something that I see and feel — I don't see people like me a lot in my audience."

To fix that, Salvant says she's trying to figure out a way to come up with an even broader range of songs to draw them in.

"To make things more inclusive and diverse," she says. "That would be a wonderful next step."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Cecile McLorin Salvant has been called the successor to Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Carter. At just 28 years old, she's won an array of awards and honors, including a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Tom Vitale reports on her newest album.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: The songs on Cecile McLorin Salvant's latest album, "Dreams And Daggers," range from a 1968 show tune from "Funny Girl"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF A GIRL ISN'T PRETTY")

CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT: (Singing) If a girl isn't pretty like a Miss Atlantic City, all she gets in life is pity and a pat.

VITALE: ...To a 1928 down-home blues by Bessie Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT TO GIVE ME SOME")

SALVANT: (Singing) Loving is the thing I crave. For your love I'd be your slave. You've got to give me some. Yes, give me some. Can't you hear me pleading? You've got to give me some.

I am so excited that there is so much in American music. There's so many different styles and vibes and situations, and I love that.

VITALE: Cecile McLorin Salvant grew up in Miami, the daughter of a Haitian doctor and a French mother. As a girl, she was trained in classical voice. After high school, she spent a year at a conservatory in the south of France, where she began to study jazz.

SALVANT: Early on, I started becoming really, really interested in these voices in jazz that were coming more from the tradition of blues and folk music, where it doesn't really matter how pristine and agile The voice is as long as there's a story being conveyed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAM JONES BLUES")

SALVANT: (Singing) Sam Jones left his lawful wife just to step around. Came back home about a year, took it for his high brown, went to his accustomed shore. Then he knocked his knuckles sore.

FRED KAPLAN: Her blues are blue. Her swing swings. She has vast almost operatic range. She has emotional range. A singer who can do all that is really in the category of a master, I think.

VITALE: Jazz journalist Fred Kaplan profiled Cecile McLorin Salvant in The New Yorker earlier this year. He says Salvant digs into a lyric like an actress.

KAPLAN: She finds things in the lyric that other jazz singers kind of glide by. I mean, "Mad About The Boy," you just look at the lyrics, you think, this is really a song written by a crazy person or at least sung, narrated by a crazy person. And she gets into that. You know, it's a mad song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAD ABOUT THE BOY")

SALVANT: (Singing) If I could employ some kind of magic that would finally destroy this love that pains me and enchains me but I can't because I'm mad about the boy.

VITALE: Cecile McLorin Salvant digs into the meaning of old songs from a modern perspective. She sings a Josephine Baker song in French, "Si J'etais Blanche" - "If I Were White" - in which the singer asks, must I be white to please you better?

SALVANT: You know, this is a song that is almost hundred years old. Does it still have some kind of relevance today?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SI J'ETAIS BLANCHE")

SALVANT: (Singing in French).

When I heard that song, my first reaction was, this is hilarious. And this is so bold. And I felt that before, you know, wanting to be white. I know what that feels like growing up, and you have Barbie dolls. And you watch a TV show, you watch a movie, and you want to be the blonde princess and you're not.

VITALE: Salvant may not be the blonde princess, but she has enjoyed a fairytale career - nothing but rave reviews and accolades. And she's only 28 years old.

SALVANT: A great frustration is, of course, that there are not enough people my age in the audience. There are not enough black people in the audience. Not that I have any problem with any other demographic, but, you know, that's something that I see and feel. I don't see people like me a lot in my audience.

VITALE: Cecile McLorin Salvant says she's trying to figure out a way to come up with an even broader range of songs to draw them in.

SALVANT: To make things more inclusive and to make things more diverse. That would be a wonderful next step.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.