Celebrated Grammy Award-winning vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant tells The Adelaide Review about keeping jazz young and relevant ahead of her Australian debut at Adelaide Festival.
“You know when you’re a kid, [and] you don’t really make the same distinctions and have the same boundaries as when you get older?” Cécile McLorin Salvant asks, discussing the blurred boundaries of jazz, Appalachian folk, R&B and Senegalese music that form her earliest musical memories. “To me it was all music, it was all the same. So that to me was really, really great, growing up in that kind of eclectic environment.”
An inspired teacher turned her onto jazz in her late teens, a win at the prestigious Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition just a few years later set her on a path to becoming one of the most celebrated young voices in jazz. Now with a Grammy and three critically embraced albums to her name, Salvant’s musically agnostic upbringing can be seen in her respect for the genre’s wider cultural context and an eagerness to land sincere connections with audiences — even those who don’t see themselves as jazz fans.
“All of the songs deal with identity in interesting ways, in my opinion,” Salvant says of the omnivorous mix of standards, old soul songs and “largely forgotten” cuts from the American songbook that form her current repertoire. “And also have a lot of humour in them,” she quickly adds. “That’s one of my main things when I’m looking for repertoire — to have something that’s funny.”
Her comedian’s delivery is one of the first things most people note of Salvant’s performances, and it’s not for nothing. From nonchalantly sung one-liners to a crisply timed punchline volleyed over a double-bass run, she knows the best way to lower an audience’s defences is by making them chortle in the jazz club.
“It’s really on the road, playing it over and over again for different audiences that I can glean different meanings from the song,” she says. “You know maybe we’ll perform it for an audience somewhere and people will laugh at a part that I didn’t think was funny at all, and it opens up new possibilities. The audience is a big factor in how I develop an interpretation of songs.”
Fittingly, half of her latest double LP Dreams and Daggers was recorded live in Greenwich Village. The rest are Salvant’s own compositions, penned in response to the better-known works. “I think the tricky thing with anything creative, writing a book or painting or singing a song, is that you’re on the shoulders of whoever came before you,” she says.
Cécile McLorin Salvant graces the cover of our February print edition
“You’re working with found materials, things that already exist. You’re not creating anything new, you’re just dealing with all of the past and then filtering it through your unique set of personalities and what you can bring to the table.
“So it’s a very interesting thing, and a tough proposition to say, ‘I’m performing a standard’ — I’m singing jazz, a style of music that’s very rooted and has an intense history, and yet I have to make it my own,” she says.
“What I do is not think about it so much — I’m not obsessed with making it sound new or personal or unique, I’m obsessed with giving the full due respect to the song. I’m looking at the lyrics first and foremost, and how I can make it as clear as I possibly can.” For Salvant, making things clear and immediate is imperative to keeping jazz relevant in 2018.
“A lot of the people in my audience are a lot older than I am, and that’s a concern. I’m concerned about how can we find a way to attract a younger audience — I think [it’s about] really putting value on real life experiences, which I think are more and more rare. People more and more spend time at home having a full experience of life at their apartment rather than going out and listening to live shows, so I think those two things hand in hand can be important in the future.
“Even back in the day when you had to buy the record, you had to wait for it then play it… now it’s so easy people don’t pay attention to it or give it the respect it deserves,” she says. “When you’re in a live situation it flips things back to ‘oh these are people making music and trying to create something’.
“That’s a really important thing that needs to be placed in the centre.”