Jazz singer Salvant proves breakout success is no fluke

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — Cecile McLorin Salvant vaulted into the top ranks of female jazz vocalists with her Grammy-nominated 2013 U.S. debut, "WomanChild," displaying impressive vocal chops as she put her own spin on obscure old jazz and blues compositions.

Her new album, "For One to Love," proves her breakout success was no fluke. Although the 26-year-old Salvant still considers herself "first and foremost an interpreter of songs," the project reflects her evolution as a songwriter with five originals among the 12 tracks.

Salvant showcases her vocal range as she deftly shifts tempos and changes dynamics — going from breathless feathery highs to full-voiced soulful lows — to spin out tales of unrequited love.

"The songs I wrote are directly about situations that I've been in — in terms of love — the times that it hasn't worked out and the times that it was beautiful," Salvant said in a recent interview. "There's definitely a feminist bent to the whole thing."

But Salvant provocatively includes a sexist song from the '60s — Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Wives and Lovers," which advises that wives need to stay attractive and attentive to their husbands lest they have an affair with "girls at the office." On "WomanChild," she covered a 1930s racial tune "You Bring Out the Savage in Me" by singer Valaida Snow.

"Those songs may seem outdated and absurd on first listen, but actually a lot of those things still exist," said Salvant. "When I sing 'Wives and Lovers,' I'm posing a question about how much are we subject to upholding a certain standard of beauty to be acceptable in society and our jobs."

Salvant says her new album has a more developed band sound after touring for 2 1/2 years with pianist Aaron Diehl's trio, evident in the intricate nuanced arrangements of "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story" and "The Trolley Song" from "Meet Me in St. Louis."

"Much of my admiration for Cecile comes from her choice in repertoire, where there are no limitations in origin or period," said Diehl, a rising jazz piano star, in an email. "Whether it's a blues from the 1920s, an art song by Leonard Bernstein, or her own original composition, she's simply interested in finding material rich in both lyrical and musical content."

Salvant says her unconventional repertoire reflects her background. The daughter of a Haitian father and French-Guadeloupean mother, she grew up in Miami, where she took classical voice and piano lessons. After high school, she headed to France to study political science and law, and also took classical voice lessons at a conservatory.

Her mother suggested that she take some jazz classes for fun, and her teacher, saxophonist-clarinetist Jean-Francois Bonnel, immediately saw her potential. Bonnel introduced her to old jazz and blues vocal recordings, and soon she was singing with his group at European festivals. She released her first CD, "Cecile," in 2010. That same year, she won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition.

"Cecile is like manna from heaven," said Wynton Marsalis, who first presented the singer with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 2012. "Cecile has great pitch, a unique style that encompasses many singers and she's extremely humble and studious. She has an original vision ... and I have tremendous respect for her."





Follow Charles J. Gans at www.twitter.com/chjgans .