Cécile McLorin Salvant: True Character


Cécile McLorin Salvant and Aaron Diehl perform June 14, 2017, at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem

(Photo: Nina Flowers)

The album, she said, grew out of a longstanding desire to record a group of standards live, and that opportunity presented itself when she was booked into the Vanguard in September 2016. “I hate overdubbing, I hate editing, I hate any kind of studio magic, so it had to be live,” she said. “And I wanted us to be in a place where we’d have to record the thing through and it would have to be what it was. This was a decision made long ago. So when I found out we were playing the Vanguard, I said, ‘Life is fleeting. I’ve got to do this now.’”

For all her love of unadulterated live recording, she was not content to leave it at that. Recalling with relish a concert she and her trio had performed with the Catalyst Quartet at Jazz at Lincoln Center in February, she was looking to integrate strings into the album. By juxtaposing the relative sterility of the strings in the studio against the grittier ambiance of the club, the album paints a holistic sonic picture—one that mirrors the complexity of human emotion in all its dimensions.

“Little by little I thought, ‘This could be a really good opportunity to use these string pieces as my subconscious analysis of these standards and these themes,’” she said. “So the Village Vanguard album was the living, waking thing. And the dreams were the songs I wrote in my intimate moments, coming from a more instinctive place and recorded in the studio. It created this idea of having this very visceral live experience with this very dreamlike, floating, surreal environment.”

The effect is achieved through a sequencing of tunes in which, in most instances, a song with strings follows or precedes a standard that’s linked to it. In what she described as “the most palpable example” of this structuring, one sequence begins with “Si J’étais Blanche”—which translates to “If I Were White”—a number sung by Josephine Baker in 1920s Paris. The piece, given an appropriately transgressive treatment by Salvant, is immediately followed by its string-saturated rejoinder, “Fascination,” which celebrates black beauty and incorporates Hughes’ words.

In some cases, Salvant has linked three tunes. One such sequence kicks off with another anachronism, “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty,” which is from the 1963 musical Funny Girl. (“If a girl isn’t pretty like a Miss Atlantic City/ All she gets in life is pity and a pat.”) “It’s a rough song,” said Salvant, whose answer, “Red Instead,” is accordingly a rough one: “I can’t really change the way I am/ I can be bolder, sharpen my dagger/ Cut through the multitudes and make it bright red instead.”

Salvant’s commentary on “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty” doesn’t end there. “Runnin’ Wild,” she said, continues the response. A wooly trip at breakneck speed with Sikivie’s bass and Leathers’ brushes buttressing the lyric, it extols a spirit of abandon: “Running wild, lost control/ Running wild, mighty bold/ Running wild, reckless too.”

“It extends the idea,” she explained. “If you are not accepted by ‘them,’ with a capital ‘T,’ you can try to bend to whatever shape they want you to be—or be bold and go the other way, fully celebrate yourself and go wild.”

One of the most effective pairings is that of a Bessie Smith song, “Sam Jones’ Blues,” and Salvant’s composition “More.” Smith has been a favorite of Salvant’s since she attended the Darius Milhaud Conservatory in Aix-en-Provence, France. “I became really, really, really, really enamored of her music about 10 years ago when I was just starting to sing jazz,” she said. “I listened to every single recording of her constantly for months, all day, all the time. I know I always want to sing one or two or three of her songs when I’m doing something.”

“Sam Jones’ Blues,” one of the few songs in Smith’s book that deals with marriage, stands as an affirmation of the independence of black women when Jones’ wife rejects him after he returns from an extended dalliance: “Sam Jones left his lovely wife just to step around/ Came back home ’bout a year, lookin’ for his high brown/ Went to his accustomed door and he knocked his knuckles sore/ His wife she came, but to his shame, she knew his face no more.” Salvant’s “More,” which is a plaintive response resting on a lush bed of strings, conveys a character’s inner dynamics: “Finally someone’s at my door/ And suddenly I find myself wanting more.”

While Salvant’s song choices are not always autobiographical in all the particulars, they must in some way draw on her experience: “Otherwise I can’t do them. I can try to get into a character but there always has to be a piece of me in a song. It’s coming from getting through some pain, getting through some body-image issues, some self-confidence issues, which unfortunately I’m not alone in dealing with. It’s the world we’re in. It’s what we have to deal with as women.”

Salvant has found a measure of solidarity with Woman to Woman, a seven-piece all-female band organized by a French booking agency and directed by pianist Renee Rosnes. Counting luminaries like trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and clarinetist Anat Cohen among its front-line ranks, the band scored successes in its debut concerts in March 2016 and on a follow-up tour this past July. So far, its concerts have been in Europe, though it has scheduled a show at the 92nd Street Y in March 2018—an engagement that, like its debut, will come within days of the annual United Nations International Women’s Day.

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