Cécile McLorin Salvant’s Uncensored Reflections


“The idea of dancing with a ghost, or a memory — I connect with that idea so much,” Salvant says.

(Photo: Jimmy and Dena Katz)

During the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cécile McLorin Salvant spent about 200 hours devouring Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) in the original French.

The modernist novel spoke to her latest fascination: the ephemeral things that elude our grasp. This fascination ripples throughout Ghost Song, her spectacular Nonesuch debut.

“I had been reading a few books that were really getting into the idea of longing and distance and grief and nostalgia — huge books that deal with ideas of ghosts and memory,” Salvant said in a Zoom chat from her Brooklyn home. Besides the Proust, she was delving into some of the weightiest novels from the European canon: Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

“I also was listening to a lot of music and writing some, and little by little the idea of this album was forming in my mind,” she continued. “I was ready to start building something that had nothing to do with touring or with documenting the sound of the band — that has a lot more to do with what I’m dealing with right now.”

The title cut, one of eight originals on the 12-track album, was the first composition to emerge from these musings. The tune opens with a keening wail, startling in its fervor. It’s a lament, shrouded in the blues, for a bygone someone. Instead of spinning in distress, however, the musical narrative shifts suddenly: Angelic vocal harmonies recall the sweetness of the relationship. A dulcet finale of children’s voices suggests its innocence. And the simple, haunting hook — “I will dance with the ghost of our long-lost love” — signals an ongoing reckoning with grief.

“‘Ghost Song’ arrived in its full, finished form. When I wrote that song it was like remembering something that was already written, instead of coming up with something [new]. I was remembering something from long ago,” Salvant said.

“The idea of dancing with a ghost, or a memory — I connect with that idea so much. To me, the domain of memory, of reminiscing, is a form of celebrating something that is not with you. [It’s] like unrequited love. How beautiful it is to fantasize about a thing, to have your imagination be central in your experience of it, rather than holding onto whatever it is. It points to how fleeting everything is.”

Somewhat presciently, Salvant wrote “Ghost Song” before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, with its painful lessons in how quickly known things can vanish. At the time, like all live musicians, she had no way of anticipating just how much her career would change in 2020.

For Salvant, the disruption was dramatic in both its destruction and its salvation. That year, the singer lost the bulk of her gigs both here and abroad to pandemic cancellations. But in the midst of this rout, she received two of the jazz world’s most prestigious awards: a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship for $625,000 and a Doris Duke grant, worth up to $275,000.

“I got the news of both grants at the height of the pandemic, so my initial reaction was just enormous relief. A weight had been lifted, because [I hadn’t had any] work at all for the whole year,” she recalled.

It was in 2020, too, that Salvant moved to Nonesuch Records, departing Mack Avenue, her label since 2013. During her tenure with Mack Avenue, Salvant released four albums, all of which received Grammy nominations and three of which won in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category. Not surprisingly, the move wasn’t easy.

“Mack Avenue was a wonderful label to be with. I really loved working with them, and it was hard to leave,” Salvant said. “It was a place where I felt tremendous artistic freedom and support. There is nothing but love for how I was welcomed into that label.

“But I also feel very connected to Nonesuch and the philosophy that they have,” Salvant added. “It’s a very artistic label. [They’re] really about making beautiful albums, regardless of anything else.”

If so, Nonesuch is the perfect home for Ghost Song, a disarmingly beautiful album. With the recording’s first vocal line — an a capella riff in the Irish sean-nós tradition — Salvant affirms the creative eclecticism that distinguishes this release. What seems to matter, more than genre or band configuration or commercial appeal, is how successfully Salvant can execute her aesthetic vision. For this album, that vision is both adventurous and ambitious.

The sean-nós line, for instance, introduces Kate Bush’s baroque pop hit “Wuthering Heights,” a direct descendant of the Brontë novel and an eerie tune regardless of setting. (Spoiler: the song’s protagonist is a lovelorn spirit). In an inspired moment, Salvant chose to record her version in the open space of a Neo-Gothic church in midtown Manhattan, without digital enhancement. Thus, the echo and distance in her vocal performance are real, all the more spectral for their acoustic provenance.

Salvant had originally booked the church to record a different track — just her original, “I Lost My Mind,” a surrealistic duet between Salvant, on voice and piano, and keyboardist Aaron Diehl, on pipe organ. But the acoustics of the space, traditionally designed for a capella voices, piqued Salvant’s imagination.

“I was going to do the a capella songs outside in the woods, with birds. That was my plan. Then I thought, ‘No — churches are made for singing,’” she said.

On the other side of the argument, turn-of-the-20th-century churches were not made for jazz duets involving a pipe organ. But Salvant encourages a more inclusive approach to instrumentation, and she credits Diehl with introducing her to contemporary arrangements for pipe organ.

“To me, the pipe organ is very similar to the banjo, the accordion, the lute — all these instruments that are put into a box. I don’t understand why,” Salvant said. “We associate the pipe organ — obviously, because it’s in a church — mostly with sacred music of a certain era. So, I thought this would be a fun opportunity.”

To be sure, Salvant doesn’t hesitate to inject levity into her writing and performing; part of the joke on “I Lost My Mind” is the strange pairing of a florid, jazz ballad verse with a skittering organ and a robotic, repetitious vocal section. Salvant’s overdubbed solo lines, crazed and clashing, only heighten the tune’s sense of foreboding — and its wit.

“You’re stuck in that loop. You can’t get out,” Salvant said, in describing the track.

This disposition — so depressingly ubiquitous during these COVID years — stands in intriguing contrast to Salvant’s artistic approach to this album. If anything, Salvant seems to embrace the cathartic expression of her free-flowing imaginings.

“I really wanted to treat this album almost like a scrapbook, where everything goes in — anything that I’m working on or thinking about, any quote that I love,” Salvant said. “I try my best to not censor anything.”

Her thoughtful curation of uncensored reflections, however, is what burnishes their significance. Take the album’s second track, “Optimistic Voices/No Love Dying,” a fusion of the chirpy melody from The Wizard of Oz and Gregory Porter’s soulful downtempo. Salvant’s tandem delivery of these two wildly different songs is, respectively, manic and devotional — a stunningly dexterous performance. Still, what binds them together so opportunely?

“I had been singing ‘No Love Dying,’ and [pianist] Sullivan [Fortner] realized that there’s something about the interval in the open of ‘Optimistic Voices’ that is close to the interval at the beginning of the Gregory Porter song. So he put them together. For me, it actually works really well because they’re both songs about undying optimism and blind faith. It became obvious that those two had to go together,” Salvant said. “I like the idea of cutting things with a contrasting sound or feeling — I like seeing that rub.”

It was Fortner, too, who recommended a cover of Sting’s “Until,” a romantic ballad in three from the soundtrack to the 2001 film Kate & Leopold. (No ghosts, but the love interest is a time traveler.) The rub here arises from the juxtaposition of Salvant’s mournful vocal on the chorus and the irrepressible solos during a Latin instrumental break. The point, intentional or otherwise: Fated love also happens during dances other than a waltz.

Salvant found especial meaning in the tune’s lyrics — a paean to the duality of love — which lay so exposed during her a capella intro. “They are so beautiful and evocative,” she said. “They reveal themselves to you the more you listen to them.”

Salvant is clearly a careful listener, with a predilection for words that convey deep poignancy. But she also appreciates theatricality, with its implicit conflicts and sly humor, as on “The World Is Mean,” from The Threepenny Opera. On this track she digs into Bertolt Brecht’s deliciously subversive lyrics, emphasizing the discrete characterizations that define the song’s dialectic.

“There’s always one lyric that is the deciding factor for me in a song,” she said. “[In this one], it’s ‘You have to reach up high/ And man is low.’ There’s something so cynical and bitter about it, and funny and, like, nasty. You don’t get to sing a lot of songs like that, right? I just think it’s hilarious.”

Kurt Weill, who wrote the tune’s odd melody, was an early crossover composer; his works hold equal appeal for classical, pop and jazz singers. Weill’s popularity among singers isn’t because his pieces are easy, however, and Salvant’s technical expertise on this rarely performed song is commanding, as her vocals shift between a trilling lightness and a deep throatiness.

The singer’s facility with a lyrical passage might surprise listeners more familiar with her standards work, given the rich sonority that she brings to those performances. Even on a standard, however, Salvant’s extends an effortless touch in the upper reaches of a melody. On her “Moon Song,” for example — the only tune on the record arranged for just a rhythm section — her silvery timbre evokes the wistfulness of distant love. In its message, this tune serves as an apt counterpart to the title cut, all the sweeter and sadder for the contrasting delicacy of the vocals.

“It’s funny. I do this rich, dark voice — [but] that’s not my real voice,” Salvant admits. “I remember this from classical voice lessons. I would always try to get my voice teacher to give me alto or even countertenor songs. She would say, ‘You can try to sing that, but you’re a soprano.’ I always resented it because I wanted a husky alto like Liz Wright or Cassandra Wilson. But I’m not that. So anytime I do that, it’s drag.”

With each new album, however, Salvant releases some of the “rigid categorization” that has informed her song choice and arrangements in the past. Today, she’s more interested in playing with different musical elements to see what works and what doesn’t. This openness to experimentation on Ghost Song not only allows for a broader range of vocal expression than on her previous albums, but for her expansion as an instrumentalist and composer.

Salvant often contributes piano tracks to her records, and Ghost Song is no exception. But on this album she makes a recording debut as a piano soloist. The original “Trail Mix,” with its relaxed bass line in the left hand and an insistent chordal push in the right, started as an impromptu idea on Salvant’s home piano; upon hearing it, Fortner insisted that she record the piece for the album.

“To get the green light from somebody whose piano playing I respect so much [was important],” Salvant said. “This is going along with the whole idea that I’m not going to censor things anymore. I would have in the past, but [now] it doesn’t matter how simply I play the piano or how non-virtuosic it is. I’m going to include it.”

In this same spirit of creative license, Salvant pulled texts for two of her originals from an unlikely source: a short, quirky podcast by host Robyn O’Neil. In crafting the lyrics to “Obligation,” the shortest track on the album, Salvant extrapolated from one of O’Neil’s catchphrases to create her own: “Promises lead to expectations, which lead to resentments.” Half spoken, half sung, these words set up Fortner for a rambunctious free improvisation — a deft and droll commentary on the pitfalls of romantic entanglements.

But Salvant’s “Dead Poplar,” also inspired by an O’Neil podcast reading, stands in contrast with the comedic diversion of “Obligation.” The text for this reflective through-composed piece derives from a letter by photographer Alfred Stieglitz to his wife, the painter Georgia O’Keefe. In this writing, he spoke matter-of-factly of his mundane world, interjecting random phrases extolling their deep love.

Moved by this poetic missive, Salvant hung a copy of the letter on her piano, eventually placing the words in a chamber jazz setting. She uses the song, she says, as a mnemonic device, written as much for herself as for her listeners.

“The point of a song is to be able to remember and memorize a beautiful set of words,” she said. “There’s no better way to memorize things but to sing them over and over again.”

Similarly, Salvant asserts the restorative power of song in the penultimate track, “Thunderclouds.”

While suffering a bout of insomnia, she had stumbled upon writer Colette’s quote describing this affliction as an oasis, a refuge for the suffering. This hopeful, but uncommon, sentiment fuels the song’s soothing melodicism and softly brushing rhythms.

“The [Colette] quote is in the same spirit of the song,” Salvant said. “There’s a beauty to what you think is a negative thing.”

In Salvant’s case, such positivity seems well-founded, even as the pandemic continues to churn. For the first part of 2022, she’ll be touring globally. In May, she’ll present the album in a release concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center. And the new grants will allow her to pursue the development of Ogresse, her multi-genre, cross-disciplinary drama. Ultimately, she would like to develop the project as a feature-length animated film.

“I was extremely grateful to be recognized, and the validation is insane,” Salvant said, referring to the 2020 prizes and the boost they give to her artistic profile. “Ogresse is very tied up in these awards because we need to raise a significant amount of money to pay animators for years of work on this project. It’s very labor intensive.”

In some ways, this forward motion in Salvant’s career belies the ethos of the new album: When she speaks of her plans, she hardly seems mired in remembrances of things past. But a hint to this turnaround lies, perhaps, in Ghost Song’s final track, the traditional English air “Unquiet Grave.”

Reflecting the album opener, Salvant again sings a capella in the moody sean-nós style, for the song’s entirety. In this tale, however, the ghost carries a different message for the mourner who refuses to let go of her memories.

“For once, you have the story of a ghost telling the living person, ‘Go live your life,’” Salvant said. “I think that’s something I need to hear — snap out of it. But there’s something funny about being kicked out of a graveyard because you’re annoying the dead. They’re saying, ‘Get out of here! What are you doing?’” DB

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March 2023
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