Cécile McLorin Salvant performs on Saturday at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, in a presentation of the Washington Performing Arts Society. Courtesy John Abbott
by Giovanni Russonello
When time gets in between things, its rivers stretching out like highways, ideas or experiences that might present themselves rather neatly tend to distort. They come to you as through a clump of steam, bent and thickened by accumulation. Cécile McLorin Salvant – the 24-year-old virtuoso and Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition winner who may already be her generation’s preeminent jazz vocalist – uses temporal distance to complicate the cute. And gee, thank heavens for that. We’re in love with old things, but the harder we grasp for them the more they become an illusion.
Go to Salvant’s concert at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue this Saturday, and you’ll hear a voice that’s thick as a church organ, hard and fine like an etching in copper. At first you think maybe she’s setting out to annoy you: When Salvant slides from a marbled tremolo to a bulb-like vowel, the Sarah Vaughan trademark also feels like a timestamp. It’s beyond a question of influence – why should she want to come so close to being someone else? And why are all these songs she’s singing so old? Is it just me, or does her band sound like a quartet that John Lewis might have led? Why’s she making nuanced music sound so … pleasant?
But stare hard enough at prettiness, and up jumps a wart. In just three years of prominence, Salvant has proven to be the closest thing this generation of singers has to a natural master. Read the interview below, and you’ll be struck by the blend of dedicated listening, technical study, and – most of all – natural propensity that has put her on the path she’s now tracing. Yet most of the songs she sings on her latest album, WomanChild, aren’t about having it easy. Even the comic tunes will give you pause: “Nobody” was first sung by the vaudevillian Bert Williams (perhaps America’s first great comic artist, and a Black man who reinforced his complexion onstage with blackface). “You Bring out the Savage in Me” is repugnant in some very specific ways. Salvant asks what remains true about these pieces, now that so much of what produced them has been abnegated. The answer: more than we willingly know.
And consider “Jitterbug Waltz:” This prodigious young woman’s surrender before a timeless melody, and her decision to perform it in simple duo with Aaron Diehl, her pianist and main musical confidante, puts me in mind of Wayne Shorter’s line: “Jazz means I dare you.” For Salvant, accepting an inheritance can be a way of raising stakes, inviting your scrutiny.
Salvant and I spoke on the phone last month, while she was at home in Florida gearing up for an international tour. We talked about her background in Western classical music, her late initiation into the jazz world while she was in France studying political science and law, and her work with the legendary Archie Shepp – a saxophonist who makes very different music than she does, but who has taught her some gem-like lessons about the importance of simplicity, search, and focus. Continue reading