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)

“It’s something I’m very excited about,” Salvant said. “It is a pleasure and maybe too rare of an occurrence for me to be performing with other women. Most people I work with are men, and I feel like that’s a shame. Not that I don’t like men, but it’s nice when things are more diverse—in all ways.”

Rosnes said the group was not founded to make a political statement. “We’re just musicians putting a show together,” she said. But Rosnes acknowledged that “we are feminist just by the nature of what we do in the world of jazz, which is a very masculine world.” And, she added, one of the “showstoppers” has been Salvant’s performance of “Gracias A La Vida,” a song written by the politically and socially active Chilean musician Violeta Parra (1917–’67) and popularized in the United States by Joan Baez.

The tune, whose title translates as “Thanks For Life,” is not overtly political, Salvant said. “But the source of it is an icon of political music,” she added. “A woman making art can already be considered a political act in and of itself.

“I’m constantly questioning these notions, especially now. We’re in such an interesting time as far as gender: how people identify, what is gender, what is gender identity. There is so much going on that has come into the mainstream dialogue. My ideal musician is one who transcends and encompasses everything.”

Diehl, with whom she has matched wits for five years, fills that bill. “He pushes me a lot,” she said of the Juilliard alumnus, who has released two leader albums of his own on Mack Avenue. “Aaron pushes the repertoire choice, pushes the band to be tighter. He’s very sensitive as a musician, very versatile. He has a very pure sound and approach; there’s nothing fuzzy about what he’s going for. It’s very clear. I would like to get to that. He knows what he wants musically.”

For his part, Diehl credits Salvant for opening his mind: “As an instrumentalist and certainly as a jazz improviser, I typically gravitate toward songs with richer harmonic material. Cécile, on the other hand, likes those types of songs but at the same time is thinking about the lyric, what is the story conveying. She’s taught me how to capture and create some kind of energy and vibe—even with the most simplistic elements—and allow her to tell a story.”

Rosnes, who has performed with Salvant in multiple settings, stressed the plausibility of the singer-songwriter’s narratives: “She [conveys] what she’s singing about. It’s almost like she’s an actress. Each song is like a little play. When you watch a great actress, you’re not thinking about the skill it takes for them to do what they do. It seems natural and effortless. That’s how Cécile is. The way she sings and delivers a story—it’s natural. People connect with the believability of it.”

As for her song choices, Rosnes said, “Cécile is going to sing what she wants to sing and I wouldn’t curtail that in any way.” A particularly compelling moment in the shows they’ve done together comes when Salvant lets loose with a full-throated, a cappella rendition of Smith’s scornful “You Ought To Be Ashamed.” “She’s courageous,” Rosnes added.

Salvant, a onetime student of political science and law, said that her willingness to push the envelope dates to her upbringing in Miami, where, raised by a French mother who is a teacher and Haitian father who is a doctor, she was urged to question societal roles. It was, she said, a matriarchal household led by funny, hard-headed women on both sides of the family.

“I was bought up to be a little bit critical of how things go—to not accept boxes people might want to put you in—without being overly aggressive or bitter,” she said. “Just having a joyful approach to life. My family and friends are always laughing, making jokes—inappropriate jokes. All that goes into the music I make.

“I’m interested in the history of American music—the history of ‘coon songs,’ minstrel songs, blackface.” That interest led her to the lectern at the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit educational center in upstate New York, where, accompanied by Diehl, she offered a well-received speaking-and-singing presentation in August 2016. It informs her work to this day.

“I talked about identity and storytelling in music: Who tells the stories, with relation to race and gender,” she said. “If you talk about identity and race and American entertainment, the most important thing is to talk about slave songs and black people in blackface and white people in blackface and how all of those dynamics were the foundation of American music and entertainment.

“The kind of dignity that you find in jazz—the idea of these genius jazz musicians, many of them black, in suits in this certain type of posture—is a direct result of having to darken the face and perform the clown and the caricature of the slave.”

At the lectern or in private conversation, the persuasiveness with which Salvant presents such ideas can be disarming. It was not always so. “There was a point when it was more well hidden because I was so shy,” she said. “But I’ve always been a very dramatic person.” As a child, she said, she distinguished herself with the flamboyance of her multilingual readings, ranging from Hamlet’s soliloquy to lyric poems in French.

“I wanted to be an actress—I still want to be an actress,” she said. “That is one of my strongest desires. Singing is an excuse—a way for me to act.”

The urge to act does not extend to all aspects of that craft. She is hesitant about some aspects of musical theater—particularly the muscular vocal style it demands—though she’d love to do a jazz version of Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess. For the moment, she’s writing the music and lyrics to a one-woman, multicharacter “musical fairy tale” about a man-eating woman—the metaphor speaks for itself—that she calls L’Ogress. If all goes as planned, the production, which will employ 10 to 15 musicians and use orchestrations by Darcy James Argue, will have its premiere at the end of 2018, possibly at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

More generally, theater appeals to her because of its immediacy, which circles back to her penchant for live performance and the draw of projects like Dreams And Daggers. “I like this whole documentarian type of recording,” she said. “I don’t believe in putting out the best version of what you could put out. I believe in putting out the version of what it was when it happened.”

In an age when every musical micro-fragment is subject to digital manipulation, Salvant’s willingness to accept performance flaws makes her a rebel: “That apparently is a very lonely position to be in when you’re recording. People want everything to be the best that it was—the musicians want that, the producers want that. I don’t want that. It’s already not going to be perfect; it’s already not going to be what I want. It’s never going to be what I envisioned in my head.

“I feel like once the song is gone, it’s gone. Music is the fleeting art form—it should be.”

If that attitude marks her as something of a throwback, it is very much in line with her predilection for excavating musical gems from the pre-rock period. Not that her sensibility, tempered by a sense of extreme irony, is anything but modern. Indeed, she is quick to assert that she is not averse to performing material from the rock era and beyond.

“I’m deeply influenced by the environment I’m in,” she said. “If I feel I’m in an environment where those songs are deeply appreciated, then I may go for it—if and only if I really relate to those songs.”

With Diehl, she said, the environment hasn’t felt quite right. But she has sung tunes by Joni Mitchell and John Lennon with pianists Fred Hersch and Jacky Terrasson, respectively. Additionally, pianist Sullivan Fortner, who accompanies her on Smith’s “You’ve Got To Give Me Some” on Dreams And Daggers, joins her on an album of tunes by the likes of Stevie Wonder expected to be released in 2019.

Meanwhile, more songs from the Mad Men era await. One possibility, Salvant said, is “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss).” Like “Wives And Lovers,” the tune, composed by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, appeared on Google’s list of sexist songs. (Fans of Mad Men might recall that The Crystals’ 1962 rendition was used in the closing credits of a 2012 episode of the TV series.) And like “Wives,” the song has become controversial, regarded in some quarters as encouraging domestic violence while in others it is seen less harshly. All of which has whetted Salvant’s appetite to explore the tune’s complexities—and quite possibly find new meaning in it.

“I really want to sing that one, too,” she said. DB

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