Future Jazz Superstar Gives the Past a Present Voice

Mar 28, 2014

"It's music from when jazz was new, and there was a lot of experimenting, and some kind of grittiness."
Cecile McLorin Salvant

Exuding sophistication, swing, and hip maturity far beyond her mere 24 years, Cecile McLorin Salvant, a vocalist with pitch-perfect intonation, unerring enunciation, and a rainbow array of rich timbres, is dazzling the jazz world and beyond with her Grammy-nominated, widely and wildly acclaimed American debut album, WomanChild.

Emphasizing feeling more than merely her awesome vocal technique, the classically trained singer/songwriter has created a celebratory tour de force with WomanChild (Mack Avenue Records) that transforms classic vintage music -- everything from 1920s Bessie Smith blues to more than a-century-old Bert Williams lament -- into exciting, expressive, new creations all her own; emotional, even edgy, relevant, and very much alive right now in the present moment.

A master at creating new art by blending the traditional with the innovative, McLorin Salvant will show Connecticut what the international fanfare for WomanChild is all about as she performs April 5 at Dr. Steven Sussman’s annual Jazz for Juvenile Diabetes benefit dinner/concert in West Hartford.

McLorin Salvant, who won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition in 2010, performs with her combo at the catered banquet/jazz feast at West Hartford Town Hall, 50 South Main Street. Festivities begin at 7:00 pm.

Part of the aura that surrounds the smart, multi-talented, polylingual vocalist -- she also plays piano, composes, arranges, speaks English and French, and sings fluently in both languages as well as Spanish -- is why in the world someone her age is so much in love with classic material from the 1920s and '30s, and has such a voracious appetite for learning the history of vintage jazz and American popular music.

“I just love it,” McLorin Salvant said by phone from her home in Harlem. “There’s this warmth to it, and a mysterious quality, because it seems pretty far away in time, and yet it’s very modern. For me, it’s music from when jazz was new, and there was a lot of just figuring it all out, experimenting, and some kind of grittiness that I don’t find in things that I’ve heard more recently.”

Cecile McLorin Salvant.
Credit Dr. Steven Sussman
"I've been delving more and more into completely overtly racist American music that we have in our past, which is hidden away somewhere."
Cecile McLorin Salvant

“I like the idea that people like Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, and others of that era, were basically experimenting with a new form of art,” McLorin Salvant said, “and the idea that it was party music, and dance music, for people wanting to have a great time, to drink, and just go a little crazy. I find that’s all in the music, which reflects the lifestyle that was surrounding it.” Her sense of the value and never-ending relevance of history is totally in tune with novelist William Faulkner’s famous reflection on the omnipresence of the past when he wrote in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What McLorin Salvant does with the past in her own distinctive voice and swinging style -- whether it’s her transformation of such canonical pieces as Fats Waller’s 'Jitterbug Waltz," or the Billie Holiday signature song, "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" -- is to somehow retain all the song’s traditional voice and feel, while placing her very own, quite imaginative creative stamp on the original material. Using her unique brand of musical alchemy, she infuses every piece, whether it’s the 19th-century traditional folk song "John Henry," or the great black entertainer Bert Williams’s melancholy signature song, "Nobody," with an existential sense, a joyful jolt of the shock of the new rejuvenating even the most ancient selection with a robust contemporary resonance.

"I do try to make a conscious effort to always keep it personal," McLorin Salvant said, "even if I’m singing a song that Bessie Smith sang, or a folk song, or whatever it may be that’s pretty old. I try to make it my own, and bring my own voice to it. It’s not always easy. That’s kind of the point of jazz -- the idea that you’re upholding some kind of tradition, but you’re also breaking it down, and changing it a little bit. It’s a constant struggle to do that, but I try."

With this approach, McLorin Salvant generates a variety of moods and expressive styles ranging from spare but lyrical to hard-swinging blues and jazz: sophisticated, accessible, compelling, and meant to delight with her sensuous, supple phrasing, and warm tonal shadings.

Cecile McLorin Salvant.
Credit Dr. Steven Sussman

Although she’s not heavy into “message music,” McLorin Salvant can bring an edgy, provocative relevance to an old song, as she does with her ironic, multi-layered deconstruction and reconstruction of "You Bring Out the Savage in Me." A 1935 "jungle music" genre hit, the song, reflecting rampant racism of its period, and perhaps beyond, is littered with racist stereotypes that black performers like the great trumpeter/singer Valaida Snow had to live with every time she sang it.

"It’s completely racist," McLorin Salvant said. "It’s totally fetishizing the black woman. But I need to sing this, because it is so absurd and outrageous. It’s a really fascinating piece of American history with that whole play of black people having to stereotype themselves on stage. That, to me, is such an interesting and important part of our history. I’ve been delving more and more into completely overtly racist American music that we have in our past, which is hidden away somewhere."

Another part of the aura that surrounds McLorin Salvant’s rocket to success and acclaim, as she is invariably compared in a litany of icons including, among others, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, and Abbey Lincoln: she came to jazz relatively late. In fact, this classically-trained singer, who’s still much in love with baroque vocal music, didn’t come to jazz until she left her home town of Miami to study abroad in college in France.

McLorin Salvant's mother, who is French and an educator, and her father, who is Haitian and a physician, raised her and her sister in a home filled with all kinds of music -- classical, jazz, and world -- and stressed education, the importance of open-mindedness, the value of culture, and appreciation for all the arts.

The future jazz diva went to Aix-en-Provence in the South of France to study law, and to further her pursuit of mastering classical and baroque singing. There, McLorin Salvant met the French educator and reed player Jean-Francois Bonnel, who turned her on to jazz. Immersing herself in jazz and blues tradition, she studied intensely with her new tutor, her first and only jazz teacher.

Before returning to the States, McLorin Salvant had gained invaluable seasoning and hands-on experience by performing live in concerts in Paris, and recording with Bonnel’s quintet. Her first giant breakthrough in the States occurred four years ago when she won the Monk prize. It’s a triumph that now seems, for all its prestige and publicity value, more like a prelude to a career whose tempo has doubled or quadrupled since the release of WomanChild. Now, when she’s only 24, it seems open to limitless possibilities that even a Monk prize winner might not have been able to imagine, much less ever actually experience.

“It feels lucky and amazing,” McLorin Salvant said of her success. “I don’t really look to the future. It’s not a very great trait of mine. My mindset is to look only two feet ahead of me, even when friends and family ask me about long-range plans. But I’m trying to develop musically as much as I can, and get better at this music, and to understand it. I want to practice the piano, learn more about the history of the music, more about arranging and writing. To understand all that takes more than a lifetime.”

Sussman, a Hartford-based physician and gifted jazz photographer, has presented an array of top-seeded talent since 1998, ranging from pianist Danilo Perez to vocalist Kurt Elling. The benefit concert’s ambience is intimate and cordial. Besides two sets of music, a gourmet meal, and the camaraderie among a congregation of devout jazz co-religionists, there’s also the satisfaction of knowing that all proceeds go to a worthy cause, The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Tickets: $150.00, including hors d’oeuvres, drinks, dinner, and dessert. Dinner catered by award-winning chef Billy Grant. Information: JazzForJuvenileDiabetes.com. Tickets: call the JDRF office at (860( 470-0020 or email susspeople@aol.com.

Mario Pavone.
Credit Steven Laschever

Orange Tones Peal at Conn College

Noted cutting-edge bassist/composer Mario Pavone leads his Orange Ensemble at 7:00 pm on Friday, March 28, at Evans Hall at Connecticut College, New London. Pavone is joined by tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, alto saxophonist Kris Allen, trombonist Peter McEachern, pianist Matt Mitchell, and drummer Gerald Cleaver, as well as Conn College students. Tickets: $10.00; $5.00, seniors and students; CC students, staff and faculty free with ID.

New Day Dawns at Firehouse 12 Top-ranked pianist Kevin Hays leads his New Day Trio at 8:30 and 10:00 pm on Friday, March 28, at New Haven’s Firehouse 12 at 45 Crown Street. Hays collaborates with bassist Rob Jost and drummer Adam Cruz. Tickets: $18.00, first set; $12.00, second set. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Pianists Reign and Shine

Besides Hays’s appearance at Firehouse 12, pianists rule from the Connecticut shoreline to the capital city: Noah Baerman leads his vibrant, empathetic trio co-featuring bassist Henry Lugo and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza at 8:30 pm on Saturday, March 29, at the Side Door Jazz Club, Old Lyme: $25.00, (860) 434-0886. Baerman, a noted pianist, composer, bandleader and educator from Middletown, is celebrating the release of his triumphant CD, Ripples, with a much-merited victory lap tour that includes this shoreline stop in his home state.

Jen Allen, another member of Connecticut’s keyboard elite, leads her trio at 8:00 pm on Saturday, March 29, at the Buttonwood Tree, Middletown: $10.00, (860) 347-4957.

Yoko Miwa, a keyboard gift from Japan, is the headliner at 3:00 pm on Sunday, March 30, at the free Baby Grand Jazz Series at the Hartford Public Library. A native of Kobe, Japan, she’s played sold-out shows in Boston and New York, and basked in rave reviews for her major label debut CD in Japan, a fluent work aptly titled, Act Naturally, (860) 695-6295.

John Brighenti and fellow seasoned craftsman, bassist Dave Daddario, perform with friends at 6:00 pm on Thursday, March 27, at Casa Mia on the Green, Rocky Hill. Admission: free, (860) 563-7000.

Pianist/singer Orice Jenkins leads his trio at 2:00 pm on Saturday, March 29, in the free series at Integrity 'n Music, Wethersfield, (860) 563-4005.

Casey Brews Brisk Blend

Saxophonist Mike Casey leads his trio at 7:00 pm on Friday, March 28, at J. Rene Coffee Roasters in West Hartford. Casey has played venues ranging from Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum to New York’s Smalls Jazz Club. Assisting the young saxophonist brew his blend of original music and new charts for old standards are bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Corey Garcia. Admission: free, (860) 461-7858.

Sketches from Spain

Oscar Penas, a classically-trained jazz guitarist/composer born in Barcelona, Spain, leads his ensemble at 8:30 pm on Friday, March 28, at The Side Door Jazz Club, Old Lyme. The New York-based, Catalonian musician fluently merges genres, cultures, and styles. $25.00, (860) 434-0886.

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