Cécile McLorin Salvant: Wide Open Window

Is the celebrated vocalist getting too big for jazz alone?

Cécile McLorin Salvant

Above: Cécile McLorin Salvant. Photo by Mark Fitton.

On a cool evening in late September, Cécile McLorin Salvant wafted onto the stage of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium as if in a trance. Dressed in a billowy white gown that she had designed herself, she stood wordlessly for an uncomfortable moment, gazing out at the audience with inscrutable eyes, and began to sing. “There’s a woman lived in the woods on the outskirts of town,” she intoned, in a line reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s timeless folk song “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” “Her skin was chocolate brown,” Salvant went on, as though she were summoning a ghost. “Upon her head she wore a crown of bones, human bones.”

The 29-year-old singer was performing to a sold-out crowd at the premiere of her exquisite 90-minute song cycle, Ogresse, arranged and conducted by the bandleader Darcy James Argue, who had assembled an unconventional mini-orchestra including banjo, marimba, melodica, oboe, tuba, and string quartet. The show, which had no intermission, is a dark fairy tale with pockets of absurd humor. It tells the tragic story of a grotesque woman with a taste for human flesh who, in an act of ill-advised vengeance, ends up eating her lover in what amounts to a kind of perverse murder-suicide.

Salvant wrote the grim story, which flits between several narrative voices, and as she made her way through the set, which contained elements of baroque music, bluegrass, and French jazz, among other influences, it became clear that Ogresse was a daring, and genre-defying, departure from anything she had done before.

At the same time, it was completely in line with Salvant’s singular artistic vision, a grand synthesis of all her creative interests to date: jazz (of course), musical theater, mythology, visual art (Salvant wrote and illustrated the accompanying songbook in pen), cooking (there are recipes for human flesh interspersed amusingly throughout), fashion, acting, race, sexuality. “This was at the deepest core of who she was,” said pianist Aaron Diehl, who has played with Salvant on several of her records. “I think that she was very, very nervous.”

“We joked that we were conspiring to alienate her entire fan base with this project,” said Argue, who worked closely with Salvant to fine-tune the piece.

Salvant needn’t have worried—she received a standing ovation at the Met—but the project did represent something of a risk for an artist who, over the past eight years or so, has established herself as a master interpreter of the vocal jazz tradition, with laser-sharp intonation, perfect diction, and a sonorous voice that recalls, most of all, Sarah Vaughan. Her uncanny capacity to embody old songs and imbue them with new meaning—in particular those a modern audience might typically cringe at, such as “Wives and Lovers” and “You Bring Out the Savage in Me”—earned Salvant two Grammys in the Jazz Vocal Album category, the most recent of which was awarded for her 2017 album Dreams and Daggers.

This year’s followup, The Window, Salvant’s fourth release for Mack Avenue, came out the same day she premiered Ogresse. It’s a collection of quiet yet buoyant duo recordings with the ace pianist Sullivan Fortner, including recherché love songs by Stevie Wonder, Richard Rodgers, and Stephen Sondheim. The 71-minute album, featuring in-studio cuts alongside live recordings from the Village Vanguard, is deeply affecting, almost eerie in its intimacy. It’s a beautiful record, but in a manner somewhat akin to Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake’s outsider-ish 1962 duo album The Newest Sound Around. In other words, it isn’t trying to put you at ease.

Taken together, Ogresse and The Window strongly suggest that Salvant is the kind of performer who does it her way. At this point in her still relatively new career, she’s earned the rare opportunity to write her own ticket, and make outré gestures that defy expectation. Refreshingly, she isn’t chasing any commercial ideal of what a jazz singer should be—and in fact, it isn’t even apparent that she wants her audience to regard her as a jazz singer in the first place.

“My perception is that she cares deeply about that tradition and that it’s an ideal vector for her expression, something she has mastered,” said pianist Dan Tepfer, who will perform French chansons with Salvant at the Fisher Center at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., on Dec. 22. “But the key for her is she’s not using it in order to be a jazz singer—she’s using it in order to express ideas about the world we live in today.”

Diehl put it a little more succinctly. For Salvant, he explained, “jazz is just like a drop of water in a big sea.”

Cover of Cécile McLorin Salvant album <I>The Window</I>
In what’s become standard practice for her, Salvant designed The Window’s front cover.

Salvant has always had omnivorous tastes that hinted at the path she might take. She grew up in a French-speaking household in Pinecrest, a suburban neighborhood outside Miami, the daughter of Haitian and French-Guadeloupean parents. Early on, she was intrigued by the singing she saw on TV. At one point, around the age of six or seven, she got it in her head that it might be fun to do voice-overs for Disney movies—she liked Pocahontas in particular—a sophisticated thought for a child, who might not be expected to separate a cartoon character from the voice behind it. That this interested her is “ironic” now, she said, given her approach.

“The last thing that I want is to sound like a Disney version of jazz, which is something that I felt like I heard a lot in jazz today, this kind of flawless, clean sound that, quite frankly, annoys me,” Salvant told me candidly in an interview one misty afternoon at a coffee shop near her apartment in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. “Like, I miss the grit. So it’s funny that, before, I wanted that, and afterwards, I was kind of pushing back against it, and now I’m sort of finding a way to bridge those two.”

In high school, Salvant would often pass the time doodling in the margins of her exams, a preoccupation she now puts to more productive use by illustrating the covers of her albums, which, as a result, come off as complete artistic statements. “Sometimes teachers would get mad, because I would draw some pretty obscene things,” she recalled. “I remember particularly drawing a devil creature breastfeeding a child, and the teacher being like, ‘What are you trying to do?’”

Salvant studied at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory in Aix-en-Provence, focusing at first on classical voice performance. “The baroque voice teacher that I had really, really made it a point for me to get the diction completely right for every song that I sang,” she said, “for me to get the text completely right, understand it, before even having the privilege of singing it.”

Those lessons stayed with her when she switched her energy to jazz after another teacher, the French tenor saxophonist Jean-François Bonnel, realized her potential. Any time she gets a text, Salvant treats it as if it were a monologue rather than a song, in much the same way an actor reads a script. “I’m like, ‘Oh, this is a story, these are words, this is my opportunity to actually infuse meaning into these words,’” she mused.

Bessie Smith’s oeuvre was an especially potent source of inspiration for Salvant as she dug into the history of jazz and early 20th-century American music. “The repertoire is so varied,” she said with a scholarly sense of awe. “She sings songs about suicide, she sings songs about being in prison, she sings about flooding, about food, about sex. It’s a much broader spectrum of material than you get almost from anyone else in American popular song, I would venture to say.”

With Bonnel at her side, Salvant recorded her first album, Cécile & the Jean-François Bonnel Paris Quintet, a somewhat dutiful yet profoundly mature assemblage of standards establishing her command of the American songbook, in 2010. Performing English-language songs in France presented an extra challenge for the young chanteuse. “I couldn’t just rely on people understanding what the song meant,” she said.

Consequently, Salvant went out of her way to tell the story contained in each song through the sound of her voice and through facial expressions, a technique that carries through to her stage appearances today.

Cécile McLorin Salvant premieres <I>Ogresse</I> at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, with Darcy James Argue (right) conducting, Sept. 28, 2018
Salvant premieres Ogresse at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, with Darcy James Argue (right) conducting, Sept. 28, 2018 (photo: Paula Lobo/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Serious jazz listeners first became aware of Salvant the same year she released her debut album, when she won the Thelonious Monk Institute’s International Jazz Competition in Washington, D.C. Al Pryor, Mack Avenue’s A&R chief at the time (soon to become Salvant’s producer), was in the audience. He recalled being blown away in particular by her rendition of Bessie Smith’s “Take It Right Back,” an anthem of rugged female empowerment. “She had an extraordinary voice and range and an ability to inhabit the song, and the meaning of the song, that I thought was preternaturally beyond what I figured her actual age was,” Pryor enthused. “She’s kind of like an old soul living in a young woman.”

A broader spectrum of listeners would get the same impression, three years later, from Salvant’s sophomore release, WomanChild, the album that put her on the map, featuring a judiciously curated assortment of songs like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “John Henry,” and “Nobody,” by the vaudeville-era entertainer Bert Williams, who performed in blackface. The title track, which Salvant wrote herself, was a throwback to Abbey Lincoln, telling the abstract story of a naïve woman doomed by fate: “Woman child falters/Clumsy on her feet/Wonderin’ where she’ll go/When her time has come/Good she’ll never know/Until she comes undone.”

The lyrics have something in common with Ogresse, which features a similarly ill-fated woman whose innocence ultimately does her in. It’s a story, Salvant told me, that she often likes to tell of herself, though she isn’t entirely sure why. “We need to do a whole therapy session on that one,” she joked.

Whatever the reason, for Salvant, Ogresse represents a logical extension of that story. “There’s the whole idea of the strong woman, the beautiful woman, this ‘Oh, I woke up like this, I’m amazing’ thing, ‘I am powerful, I am woman, dah dah dah, I’m not flawed, I am perfect as I am,’ you know—that type of presence, which I think is very exciting and interesting,” she explained. “But I also like the idea of a deeply flawed, troubled, grotesque, ugly female. I think that idea, and what that entails, and what that means, and the consequences of that, excite me a lot. And so I wanted to work with that idea in whatever way I could think of.”

Salvant wrote Ogresse while on tour, over the course of a year. Originally, she approached Argue, whose large-scale jazz orchestrations she admired, to arrange some songs she had composed for an album. But as they collaborated, the project switched directions and became a kind of multimedia work to be performed on stage. “Cécile plays her cards pretty close to the vest,” Argue said, “so I didn’t know this was the sort of thing she would be interested in.” After she had tweaked the piece, Salvant sent Argue a demo in which she sang the entire thing through while accompanying herself on piano.

“I was amazed at how naturally she took to this and how she had really threaded melodic ideas and recurring motives,” Argue told me. “There was a real cohesiveness to it, and a real maturity.”

Cécile McLorin Salvant and Sullivan Fortner
Salvant and her Window partner Sullivan Fortner (photo: Mark Fitton)

As Salvant prepares to leave her twenties, it’s clear that her talent as a performer could take her in several directions, and she has told friends and acquaintances that she yearns to try her hand at acting, which is something she gets close to in Ogresse. “It’s the great frustration of my life,” she said, only half-seriously. “I realized a couple of years ago how much I actually did want to be an actress and how music is almost like a means to an end.”

I asked her which roles appealed to her, and she immediately mentioned Yentl, the title character in Barbra Streisand’s 1983 romantic musical about a Jewish woman in pre-Holocaust Poland who poses as a man so she can study the Talmud in a yeshiva. “I love those kinds of movies,” she said. “I love when there are layers. You’re an actor playing in a role and the person that you’re playing is also playing a role of something else. That makes me insane. I love that, especially when it’s gender stuff.”

But Salvant believes it’s too late to break into acting because she’s never taken a class—and both film and theater, she said, seem forbidding, given her path so far (though one gets the sense that she’s a little too modest in her self-assessment). Thus, listeners can likely expect that in the future, as Salvant grows into herself and sheds her influences, she will continue to write songs and excavate the past for new material, confounding expectations of what a jazz vocalist can be. “Early on, I heard a lot of her influences,” said pianist Fred Hersch, who has played with Salvant. “But now people are starting to hear her as her.”

On an evening in mid-October, Salvant performed with Fortner in an intimate, off-the-cuff set at Steinway Hall in midtown Manhattan that doubled as a record release party for The Window, which is sure to garner Salvant another Grammy nomination, if not a win. “What are we gonna play?” she said, appearing before the audience in a gold dress and black lace gloves she had made herself, casually holding a glass of white wine in one hand and a microphone in the other.

Salvant and Fortner, who have an easy, lighthearted rapport on stage, cracked jokes with one another in between songs, but when they began a tune, the mood in the room became deadly serious, and Salvant became a different person, as though each lyric were her own lived experience. Taking requests from the crowd, they ran through a number of songs that have become identifiable with her, including Rodgers’ “The Sweetest Sounds,” Bernstein and Sondheim’s “Somewhere,” and “Fog,” a ballad she wrote.

Many of the people in attendance had seen Salvant play before, and probably more than once, but it was clear from their rapturous reaction at the set’s conclusion that she had shown them a side of herself they’d never witnessed before. “She’s still a mystery to me,” Fortner told me in a phone interview a day before the show. “Even now, there are nights when I’m surprised at what she does and what she can do.” JT