The Creole Stylings of Cécile McLorin Salvant
The word Creole has come to describe anyone of mixed European and African descent, and derives etymologically from the Portuguese crioulo (black person born in Brazil), which in turns comes from criar (to breed), and the Latin creare (to produce or create). It is thus entirely apposite that such a creative spirit as Cécile McLorin Salvant was born in Miami to a French mother and a Haitian father and classically trained in France. She developed an early interest in classical piano at the age of five and began singing in the Miami Choral Society aged eight. Her vocal studies continued under Edward Walker at the University of Miami and in 2007 she moved to Aix-en-Provence to study law, as well as classical and baroque voice at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory. She also branched out into jazz composition with reedist Jean-Francois Bonnel and started singing with her first band. After a series of concerts in Paris In 2009, she recorded her first album Cécile with Bonnel's Paris Quintet and a year later won the Theolonius Monk competition in Washington DC. Her second album WomanChild was nominated for a Grammy, and For One To Love won the Best Jazz Vocal Grammy in 2016. Her fourth album Dreams And Daggers (partly recorded live at the Village Vanguard) had critics testifying to her "swinging virtuosity," her "gorgeously refined" vocal arrangements, and her "titanic abilities."
"You only get a singer like this once in a generation or two," commented Wynton Marsalis, who has repeatedly hired her to front his jazz orchestra and mounted a 25 foot high portrait of her on the exterior of Lincoln Center. “She radiates authority. She has poise, elegance, soul, humour, sensuality, power, virtuosity, range, insight, intelligence, depth, and grace.” Celebrating her uncanny ability to reinvigorate jazz standards and find a fresh approach to vaudeville, blues, gospel, and folk music, Stephen Holden of The New York Times called her "the finest jazz singer to emerge in the last decade," going on to say her virtues include “perfect pitch and enunciation, a playful sense of humour, a rich and varied tonal palette, a supple sense of swing, exquisite taste in songs and phrasing, and a deep connection to lyrics.”
In a recent Dominion Post interview, Grant Smithies adumbrated the gushing plaudits, comparing her elegant swooping range to Ella Fitzgerald and angry sorrowful undercurrents to Billie Holiday, while also suggesting her low notes channel the raw blues moan of Bessie Smith and her high notes are haunted by the ghost of Sarah Vaughan. Salvant herself insisted that she tries not pay too much attention to such praise -"otherwise it would be problematic. I take it as a compliment without lingering on it too much. I like to think that the songs I choose are as interesting as my voice. I like songs that talk about identity and power dynamics in an unexpected way. I also like songs that are funny, or inappropriate in some way, to the extent that you might not expect to hear them in a jazz context. People often think jazz means clean and family friendly, but really, this is music that began in the brothel. I like songs with a little edge."
As an example, she referred Smithies to a succession of sexist and racist songs she covers whose sentiments are even more jarring when delivered by such a spectacular voice - "To me, if you laugh at something that's hurtful, that has so much more power than crying over it. Humour helps you heal, and it helps you express complicated and difficult ideas in a way where people will let them in more easily. Also, in the history of American music, sexist or racist songs are part of our tradition too. We like to try and clean everything up retroactively, like … we're all good. But really, we're not, and some songs written fifty or seventy years ago make you think … how much has really changed?" Salvant's version of Bacharach and David's Wives and Lovers, for example, is a starkly misogynistic message to married women that they should constantly strive to stay both attractive and subservient - "It's about how certain unreasonable responsibilities are heaped onto people. In this song, it's the woman's fault for not staying pretty enough to keep her unfaithful man. It's interesting where the blame is placed."
Salvant also acknowledged the direct influence of Bessie Smith, who "is iconic and incredible to me. She had strength, vulnerability, power and frailty, and an amazing, exciting repertoire of songs. A lot of her songs deal with things people didn't sing about at the time, like sex and food and savages and women trying to regain the rights to the house and land when they split from a man. She has one song about suicide, where she lists all the different ways she's gonna kill herself. It's such a taboo topic, but there she is, not just threatening, like, if you don't love me, I'll kill myself. She goes into detail: I'm gonna poison myself, jump out of a tree, throw myself off a building or a bridge. It's really intense, and I love that. She's thought through all the options!"
Headlining the New Zealand Festival at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre, Salvant was beautifully accompanied by Aaron Diehl on piano, Paul Sikivie on bass, and Kyle Pool on drums. She has clearly researched the history of the Great American Songbook in depth, often unearthing rarely recorded and largely forgotten songs with strong stories. She intuitively appreciates the interconnections between jazz, vaudeville, Broadway show tunes, blues, and folk music, and her carefully selected repertoire displayed a bell-clear soprano and an unusually juicy bass register, rich, striking, and endlessly nuanced. Whether singing in French or English, her bravura range was perfectly complemented by her crisply seductive enunciation. Refusing to indulge in extended bouts of meandering melisma, tremulous vibrato, or cocktail bar clichés, she channelled the emotional current of her songs as smoothly as an insulated plug in a high-voltage socket.
"What can I tell you? I'm a failed actor!" Salvant admitted to Smithies. "I always wanted to be an actress, but found out I could sing, so I dramatise the hell out of these songs. I've always been interested getting into character, and really get to the root of how to express a complex emotion. If I spend too long without singing, I feel like I'm a useless leech on society! When I sing, I feel like I have a purpose, and it's very affirming to me. I also like to challenge the misconception that jazz is some sort of musical museum piece, but I guess some art forms are doomed to be misunderstood and not attract the larger audiences they deserve. Think of poets and how small their audience is, yet they're making some of the most moving and beautiful work a human being can make. Jazz is similar. It's frustrating that people think of it as old and dusty and no fun and too challenging or whatever. And it's just not true."
Judging from her appearance in Wellington, there is no doubt that the highly articulate Salvant will eventually enter the jazz pantheon, not only as a superbly-gifted vocalist, but also as a cultural spokesperson for the Millennial generation. Her musicological approach, her personal style, and her social commentary ranges across such issues as modern sexuality, the status of women in society, and the specific situation of interracial people, not only in America, but also the world.