July 21, 2024


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A force in jazz, Cécile McLorin Salvant isn’t stopping there: Video, Photo

Cécile McLorin Salvant has been hard at work stretching herself in recent years.

The 32-year-old vocalist, composer, and visual artist, who will perform songs from her forthcoming album in a Celebrity Series of Boston concert at Berklee Performance Center on Saturday, is already firmly established as a gifted jazz singer. She has won Grammys for best jazz vocal album for her three most recent releases, and her album before those three was a finalist for the same honor. DownBeat magazine’s 2019 Jazz Critics Poll voted her jazz artist of the year, along with best female vocalist, and her album “The Window,” with Sullivan Fortner accompanying her on piano and organ, finished second to a Wayne Shorter release for album of the year.

Now she’s exploring other realms as well, and the world beyond jazz is taking notice.

In 2020, Salvant landed both a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and a Doris Duke Artist award. Both of those awards were influenced by “Ogresse,” an ambitious multimedia project exploring race and gender, which Salvant premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018. Salvant wrote, composed, and sang multiple parts of the fable, backed by a 13-piece ensemble directed by Darcy James Argue. She is now in the process of turning that project into an animated film from images that she has drawn. “Ogresse” would be the first feature-length animation directed by a Black woman, she has said.

“Ghost Song” is more concise (at 46 minutes) and thematically unified than previous Salvant albums. It is also her first release for Nonesuch Records, after four with Mack Avenue.

“The reason that I moved to Nonesuch was, in part, because Nonesuch is a label that I have a lot of attachment to from a listener’s perspective,” Salvant explains by phone, having recently returned home to Harlem from a string of performances in Europe. “A lot of the records that I grew up listening to, my mom’s CD collection, were Nonesuch records, and they were not tied to any particular genre. It’s not necessarily the eclecticism; it was just the deep connection that I had to those albums and to those artists.”

Salvant rattles off the names of a few such “great voices [from] all over the world,” among them Buena Vista Social Club and Brazilian composer and musician Caetano Veloso. But it wasn’t merely the familial connection to Nonesuch that caused her to switch labels.

“I was just curious,” she explains. “I think I have a tendency to just want to know, after a while of doing something at the same place, what else is possible? What else is out there? Mack Avenue was a great, great place for me to be, and they gave me a lot of creative freedom — I mean, total creative freedom. They probably would have been cool with [the new album]. But I think the move to Nonesuch, and this album, is more about my mindset.

“I would say I’ve been trying to push myself more creatively lately. And that would have happened wherever I was.”

Fortner, whose help arranging several songs earned him a co-producer credit on “Ghost Song,” suggests that Salvant expanding her creative boundaries is “more or less just Cécile becoming more and more comfortable with Cécile.”

“Just as much as a Bessie Smith or Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday are a part of Cécile’s bag, as far as her influences,” he explains, “so are people like Céline Dion and Sting and the ‘Pocahontas’ soundtrack on Walt Disney and, like, ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ In fact, Disney’s kind of the reason why she decided that she wanted to sing. You know, the music from the ‘90s. She grew up on the Backstreet Boys. So it’s really her just becoming more comfortable and acknowledging that ‘Yeah, I’m a kid of the ‘90s, Yeah, I love this music. And this music informs who I am just as much.’ “

One of Fortner’s favorite songs on “Ogresse” is “I Want to Believe in You,” which he describes as “basically a Mariah Carey ballad. . . . And it’s really cool, because she has a way of taking those songs and kind of adapting [them] in a jazz context — a weird context, the way you don’t necessarily expect it to hear it in. But it works, because it’s her.

“I think the records to come you’ll start to see more and more of who Cécile is, not just as a jazz singer but as an artist, as a composer, as a singer’s singer.”

The title track of “Ghost Song” first came to Salvant in the shower. “We allow ourselves such little time for contemplation because we’re stuck with our devices at all times,” she notes. “I think the shower becomes the last place you can’t be doing something other than letting your mind drift.”

The song was conceived pre-pandemic, before Salvant began planning a new album. But she says the resultant record sounds the way it does because it’s a pandemic album. That’s especially so on “I Lost My Mind,” which was born of pandemic frustration and features Salvant singing robotically, backed by Aaron Diehl on pipe organ. The album begins and ends with two ghost-related covers — Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” (Salvant was “struck to my core” by the Emily Brönte novel, which she read while making the album) and the traditional “Unquiet Grave,” respectively — tracks sung partly or entirely unaccompanied in the Irish sean-nós style.

Other covers include a mashup of Harold Arlen’s “Optimistic Voices” (from “The Wizard of Oz”) and Gregory Porter’s “No Love Dying”; Sting’s “Until,” from the 2001 film “Kate & Leopold”; and an exuberant take on Kurt Weill’s “The World Is Mean,” from “The Threepenny Opera.”

Salvant wrote four pieces besides the two singles: “Obligation” ponders “what happens when the foundation of a sexual encounter is guilt and not desire?” “Dead Poplar” sets to music text from a letter Alfred Stieglitz wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe. “Moon Song” is a sort of companion piece to “Ghost Song,” looking at yearning during a relationship rather than after it has ended.

The remaining Salvant original, “Trail Mix,” is a short solo piano piece that Fortner overheard her working on and persuaded her was a song. She plays it herself on the album, but won’t be doing so live anytime soon.

“No, I absolutely will not,” Salvant declares, laughing. “I will not do that onstage.”

That’s one bit of stretching she isn’t ready for. Yet.

By Bill Beuttler Globe correspondent

Cécile McLorin Salvant will be performing songs from her upcoming album, "Ghost Song," at the Berklee Performance Center.

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