The strange radicalism of jazz sensation Cécile McLorin Salvant

by James Belfield / 30 January, 2018
Cécile McLorin Salvant: “I really like songs that have an unusual take on identity and power dynamics.”

Cécile McLorin Salvant: “I really like songs that have an unusual take on identity and power dynamics.”

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New Zealand-bound jazz phenomenon Cécile McLorin Salvant fearlessly fills her repertoire with songs that tackle taboo topics. 

As Cécile McLorin Salvant slips into a cackling, deranged voice to drawl out the word “mad”, nervous laughter ripples through the audience.

Instantly, the Noël Coward jazz standard Mad About the Boy is ripped from its mooring as a Dinah Washington-sung one-time jeans commercial or a lovelorn homage to a screen idol from yesteryear. It becomes an unhinged rave as Salvant focuses more on the “mad” and less on the “about the boy”.

It’s this ability to reinterpret songs through her performance that’s earnt the 28-year-old singer wide acclaim (no review is nowadays complete without Wynton Marsalis’s comment to the New Yorker that “you get a singer like this once in a generation or two”), comparisons with greats such as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. She has now won Grammys for her 2015 album For One to Love and her 2017 LP Dreams and Daggers.

Mad About the Boy is the third track on the double-album, which was recorded live at the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York’s Lower Manhattan, and offers a glimpse of how Salvant likes to shift the dynamic when it comes to choosing her repertoire and is fearless when it comes to tackling usually off-limits topics head-on.

After all, in a US dominated by debates over race and gender equality, it takes a brave soul to choose songs such as If a Girl Isn’t Pretty (“Any guy who pays a quarter/For a seat just feels he oughter/See a figger that his wife can’t/Substitute.), Joséphine Baker’s Si J’étais Blanche (“Do I have to be white to please you better?”) and the innuendo-laden Spencer Williams blues track You’ve Got to Give Me Some, with its smirking references to “I crave your round steak” and “sweet lollipop”.

“I really like songs that have an unusual take on identity and power dynamics,” she says. “And humour, too, plays a huge part – I really want to laugh and show the irony in a song.

“That’s why if I come across a song that says if a girl isn’t pretty, we should drown her in a river, that sounds totally like something I’d want to put out there because it’s such a strong image – and not strength in a good way, it’s just really intense.

“For example, the reason for including Mad About the Boy is the line “I got to pay my rental”, because right there in the middle of a love song is someone talking about their rent, and that makes me want to sing that song. My songs always have to have their strangeness and relate to how we live our everyday lives in an almost ugly way, so I’m not afraid of demonstrating ugly and sour things.”

So where does she draw the line?

Salvant admits it’s still a dream to be able to perform Run, Nigger, Run because even though the N-word is “really uncomfortable … it was originally a slave song that was taken away by fascist white fiddle groups”. Last year, she recorded Jelly Roll Morton’s The Murder Ballad, a blood-thirsty and profanity-laden 30-minute blues number that was originally recorded for the Library of Congress in 1938.

“When dealing with things like we are today, such as abuse and rape culture, I shy away from things, but only for so long,” she says. “I’ve wanted to sing The Murder Ballad for years, and always wondered if I had the guts to pull it off, but kept saying, ‘I can’t do that’, but it catches up with you eventually.”

Salvant was raised in Miami in a French-speaking house with a Haitian father and French mother. In 2008, she went to Aix-en-Provence in France to study law and political science, while continuing her classical singing. When at 20 she found herself doing singing gigs in Europe as part of a jazz trio, she gave herself three years to see if she could make a living at it.

Salvant’s rise to the top of the jazz rankings has been swift. In 2010, seemingly coming from nowhere, she won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition.

Even though she plays down her fame – “If it was on a pop scale, it would be much more grand, where I wouldn’t be able to go out to the supermarket, but that’s not my life” – she has the sort of millennial appeal and broad inspiration that bring a wider audience than the usual jazz crowd to her live shows.

“It’s about communicating with people and communicating emotions – that’s the most important part of the performance,” she says. “Posing questions that we don’t have answers to is all great fun as well as being in dialogue with other musicians on stage.

“I like the idea of travelling through time, whether it’s reading a book or looking at an older painting, and that’s why one of my favourite musicians is Thelonious Monk – his music sounds both prehistoric and futuristic at the same time. I like the idea of stretching through time and having part of your music in the past, but also looking beyond that into a past we don’t even think of.”

On Dreams and Daggers, that means mixing live performances of the likes of Kurt Weill’s Somehow I Never Could Believe (from the 1946 opera Street Scene), which distils a lifetime of emotion into 10 minutes, with Bessie Smith’s misogynist-put-down Sam Jones Blues and a galloping, gorgeous Let’s Face the Music and Dance.

And at every twist and turn, every leap through the decades or fresh approach to a standard, Salvant challenges the audience to come with her along paths less trodden.

Cécile McLorin Salvant will perform at the New Zealand Festival on March 13 at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington, and the Auckland Arts Festival on March 15 at the Town Hall. Her album Dreams and Daggers is out now.

This is an updated version of an article first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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