Cécile McLorin Salvant: The Ghost Writer

In her repertoire & songcraft, Cécile McLorin Salvant communes with the authentic past of American song

Cécile McLorin Salvant in performance at Newport Jazz Festival (photo by Marek Lazarski)

Sometimes, when it comes to the impeccable, incontrovertible jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, the devil really is in the details. Survey her performing career, which still fits comfortably within the span of a single decade, and you’ll notice hundreds of small but significant musical choices that ring with the clarity of intention. An outré song selection. An arch hesitation. A slight curl of inflection that alters the emotional color of a phrase.

At the Newport Jazz Festival in August, among many other highlights in an authoritative set, Salvant brought a subtle calibration of forces to her treatment of the word “nonchalant.” The sun was high overhead, and she was holding court on the festival’s main stage, in vintage sunglasses and a brightly bespeckled sheath dress. Her agile backing trio—Aaron Diehl on piano, Paul Sikivie on bass, Lawrence Leathers on drums—wore similarly fine attire, worthy of a fashion spread.

So, back to “nonchalant.” It arrived in the bridge of Duke Ellington’s ageless ballad “Sophisticated Lady.” The lyrics to the standard, by Mitchell Parish, tee up the word with this deft portrait of insouciant dissipation: “Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow.” Salvant imbued the passage with a mournful elegance, and when she got to the word in question she luxuriated in it, as if to savor the ambiguities. Her delivery was alluring, and ineffably sad.

Elsewhere in the set, Salvant sang a waltz arrangement of “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” from the Barbra Streisand musical Funny Girl—a sardonic, self-deprecating tune with an undercurrent of societal critique. She was giving the audience an early taste of her handsome double album, Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue), which features a version of the song recorded at the Village Vanguard. For the most part, the album belongs to jazz’s hallowed live-at-the-Vanguard tradition—but those live tracks come interspersed with studio takes featuring a string ensemble, the Catalyst Quartet.

Dreams and Daggers would earn Salvant her third consecutive Grammy nomination, and it stands as a testament to her artistic self-assurance, her creative evolution and her willingness to push into awkward terrain. There was a hint of that last facet onstage at Newport too, when she performed a Big Bill Broonzy folk song called “Black, Brown and White.”

She adopted a wry smile as she bounded through the chorus:

They says if you was white,
should be all right

If you was brown, stick around

But as you’s black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

Broonzy’s tune hails from the 1930s, but in the right context it still carries a sting. Such is the case in the 2017 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, when it underscores the discomfiting racial calculus of James Baldwin.

In a similar way, singing “Black, Brown and White” in Newport in 2017 isn’t a neutral gesture. I wasn’t in Salvant’s shoes at that moment, but I’m familiar with the view from the stage. Beyond the leisurely throng on the festival grounds, a smattering of small yachts and pleasure craft bobbed in the chop of Narragansett Bay. The performance, like so much about Salvant’s artistic persona, points toward the unconventional truth that her near-miraculous prowess as a vocalist is far from the most interesting thing about her.

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Until recently, Salvant lived on the top floor of a brownstone in Harlem. (Diehl lived there too, on the ground floor.) When the building’s owner decided to sell, she found an apartment in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn.

She’d been in the new place for less than a week, many of her boxes still unpacked, when we met at a nearby café one afternoon last fall. She wore her trademark thick-rimmed glasses and a mustard-yellow shift dress, laughing readily and leaning in when she had a good point to make, which was often. “What I love the most in any art is balance,” she said. “Balance of influences, balance of emotions. I like when there’s humor but also really dark, inside material. I like if there’s a spontaneous quality but also a really studied quality. And this is the case for anything I appreciate as a viewer and an audience member.”

Salvant was an unknown entity when she won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2010, at age 21. Born in Miami to a Haitian father and a French mother, she had no childhood aspiration to become a jazz singer. She caught the spirit only after encouragement from a teacher at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory of Music, in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Since then, a lot of the conversation around her has centered on her unusually forthright bond with the musical past. As soon as people started hearing her, they took note of her allusions to Bessie Smith and Valaida Snow. Those early 20th-century totems shared space in Salvant’s pantheon with more standard heroines like Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan. One question Salvant often hears, phrased in various ways, is: Why are you so focused on the past?

When I brought this up, she shrugged. “I love these people,” she said. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m in communication with them. I carry them with me.” Her choice of metaphor feels apt. On the new album, there’s a flickering instant on “You’re My Thrill” when the specter of Billie Holiday floats in and out of the room. (Appropriately, it’s when Salvant sings the line “You send chills right through me”—in particular, how she lands on the word “chills.”)

Salvant also sees an undercurrent of defensive insecurity in whoever’s asking that question of why. “The idea of relevance is a really strong and intense thing in the jazz community—because it’s not relevant,” she said with a laugh. “And we don’t have a diverse audience, and we don’t have young people in our audience, for the most part. So there is a certain type of inspiration, and people trying to find solutions. But I guess I don’t see time in that way, and I don’t see the people who have passed in that way. Maybe they’re gone, but I don’t feel that they’re gone.”

She likes to talk about “portals”—a notion that the past and the present can be in dialogue, not on some kind of linear continuum but all at the same time. It’s a feeling she applies to her experience of other art she treasures, by the poet Anne Sexton or the painter Paul Klee.

Salvant first put herself forward as a songwriter on her American debut, WomanChild, in 2013. But it was on her superb 2015 album, For One to Love, that she established her footing in that regard. Bookended by a pair of original art songs—“Fog” and “Underling,” both delving into the depths of romantic despair—it’s an album of prepossessing lyrical and emotional sense.

Salvant’s own songs take up nearly half the track list on For One to Love, which otherwise commingles beloved show tunes (“The Trolley Song,” “Stepsisters’ Lament”), blues obscurities (Blanche Calloway’s “Growlin’ Dan”) and Brill Building fare (“Wives and Lovers,” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David). Seen as a whole, the album presents a loose theme: the toxic imbalance of power that can engulf a love affair, and the ways in which gender has often figured into that equation. If you’ve seen Salvant in concert sometime within the last few years, you’ll remember a couple of other songs fitting that theme: “The Ballad of the Shape of Things,” a wry tale of marital betrayal famously sung by Blossom Dearie; and “Guess Who I Saw Today,” which fits a similar description and has long been associated with Nancy Wilson.

There’s a more sanguine nod to Wilson on Dreams and Daggers: Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry,” which appears on the landmark 1962 album Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley. Along with a pair of jaunty tunes by Bob Dorough, it suits the album’s overall mood—a lighter, brighter vision than the one Salvant had been offering before.

She wrote most of the album’s originals in response to her live repertoire, seizing on a mood or even a specific word. At the end of the Bessie Smith-associated blues “You’ve Got to Give Me Some,” which Salvant performs as a deliciously bawdy duo with pianist Sullivan Fortner, there’s a line that goes, “I’m crazy ’bout them worms.” It sparked the inspiration for a song called “Worms,” which Salvant envisioned as “about the idea of experiencing your pleasure through someone else’s pleasure,” in a parasitic fashion. The song wouldn’t exist if not for the inspiration from Smith.

“So it’s going back to the idea of portals and dialogue with the past,” Salvant said. “Ghosts and spirits and ideas, and looking at them in a different light.”

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You’d be mistaken if you assumed that the past represents a place of comfort for Salvant. One of her core motivations is to suggest the opposite: She’s interested in excavating the deeper, darker ore in the bedrock of American song, and this can make her seem like a subversive, given how much effort has gone into the sanitization of the jazz tradition. “I like to be provoked,” she said. “And I like to provoke people. But I don’t dare do it as much as I want.” Not long ago, during an engagement at Jazz at Lincoln Center—the high temple of Jazz as Enlightenment—she performed a Jelly Roll Morton curio called “The Murder Ballad,” a narrative blues found in his Library of Congress recordings.

It takes a half-hour to perform the piece in its entirety, which is what Salvant did, turning the repetitive cadence into a kind of bardic trance. She also faithfully delivered Morton’s lyrics, about a woman who fatally lashes out at her husband’s mistress and suffers the harsh consequences. And it’s probably safe to assume that Salvant is the only artist ever to grace a Jazz at Lincoln Center stage with a lyric like “Bitch, I’ll cut your fucking throat, drink your blood like wine.”

A couple of days after coffee in Brooklyn, I caught Salvant with Fortner at the Vanguard. The energy was lively and loose, spontaneous to the core. Early in the set, Salvant performed “The Island,” a song from the Streisand catalog that two different audience members had recommended to her the night before. She’d learned it that afternoon.

Salvant gave voice to the voluptuous trance in Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics to the song: “Taste me with your kisses/Find my secret places/Touch me till I tremble/Free my wings for flying.” Afterward, she noted this had been her first time singing it. “I didn’t know it was such an intense and sensual experience,” she said, eliciting a hearty laugh in the room.

The next big project for Salvant is a song cycle she’s calling L’Ogresse, or “The Ogress,” complete with a fairytale narrative. In short, it’s about a female ogre who falls in love with a man, and then devours her lover. “The singer is the narrator and also several characters,” she said. “So it’s a one-woman-show type of situation, which I have a little bit of experience with as a Baroque voice student. And it all started because I was thinking about female monsters—the idea of being a monstrosity and liking it.” The piece will premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall, with Salvant singing against orchestrations by Darcy James Argue.

By chance, Argue attended the same Vanguard set that I did. On my way out of the club, I stopped him to ask about Salvant’s commitment to narrative, which strikes me as exceptional. Argue nodded. “It is all about communication, and doing something as a vocalist that instrumentalists can’t do at all,” he said. “Which is working with text, with motivation, with dramatic irony, with the literary possibilities that are a part of songcraft. Those things are pretty thin on the ground in the history of jazz singing, and so it is wonderful to see someone of this generation who’s so attuned to that, and is also a phenomenal musician.”

Like Salvant at the time, Argue was deep in the weeds with L’Ogresse, and expressing a wary enthusiasm. “Obviously she has come up with a very fraught and provocative scenario,” he said, laughing. “But if anyone can pull this off in a way that still connects with an audience, it’s Cécile.”

Image by Marek Lazarski, taken at the 2017 Newport Jazz Festival.