Cécile McLorin Salvant interview: “I’m just really fascinated with visual art. It’s something that I connect with on a really deep level”

Kevin Le Gendre
Sunday, March 8, 2020

Cécile McLorin Salvant exudes a poise and maturity beyond her tender years – wrapping her virtuosity in a worldly-wise wit and wry, sometimes, dark humour. It’s an approach that has seen her win the 2010 Thelonious Monk competition and take home Grammy Awards for 2016’s For One To Love and 2014’s WomanChild albums. Kevin Le Gendre spoke to her about how her painterly passions and the visceral live energy of the hallowed Village Vanguard...

Cécile McLorin Salvant (photo: Mark Fitton)
Cécile McLorin Salvant (photo: Mark Fitton)

The Village Vanguard is one of several clubs that has played a key role in the history of the live jazz album. Treasured are recordings of sessions there by messiahs like Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler and, above all, John Coltrane, for whom the word ‘again’ took a sharp resonance, given his many appearances in the 1960s at the New York haunt.

These holy ghosts may not move the furniture at the club, which, the consensus holds, has remained largely unchanged since it was opened in 1935 by Max Gordon and was subsequently taken on by his formidable and indefatigable widow, 91-year-old Lorraine. Yet could Trane et al prove to be as much spectres of intimidation as spirits of inspiration for an artist in the early stage of a promising career?

Having just turned 27, Cécile McLorin Salvant loosely falls into that category. Her excellent new double-album Dreams And Daggers comprises material from a concert at the storied venue as well as studio tracks. The singer was in no way indifferent to the gravitas of the setting.

“When we were invited to perform at the Vanguard it became clear that this was such a huge honour,” she says on the phone in the back of a taxi in central New York on her way to her apartment in Harlem.

“I was thinking back on all these recordings that I absolutely love that were made there and all the amazing musicians that I respect that were there. Wow! And I thought, well you never know what tomorrow might bring? We could all die, so let’s just record there for us and celebrate that moment, which was important. There’s really something about that place and recording there that does have a certain vibe.”

While the relatively small, intimate basement is known for its intense ambiance the Vanguard has another mark of distinction that would loom large for even the most casual of observers and certainly be at the forefront of the mind of an artist such as Salvant: though the club once programmed folk, calypso and comedy it has been, for most of its jazz incarnation, synonymous with players rather than singers.

With her dates sandwiched between those of guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and pianist Bill Charlap, Salvant was well aware of the fact, though she kept at the forefront of her mind the superb Vanguard album Betty Carter recorded in 1970. The elephant in the room is not something that Salvant, whose talent was announced in 2010 by her victory in the Thelonious Monk Competition, is looking to sidestep.

“The fact that there are not a lot of singers there did make me a little nervous. I definitely had many moments of thinking ‘well, who am I to be in this club singing?’,” she admits. “The thing with jazz singers, …unfortunately, today most audiences really connect with singers and that’s what sells a lot of the time. To see a place that doesn’t really programme singers… it’s a bit indicative of the fact that they are not looking at what’s gonna sell, or who is the most popular, or whatever the charts are saying. They’re looking [the Vanguard] at the quality of the music and they’re filling their club by always providing great quality music. That’s not to say that singers are of lesser quality. I just think a lot of thought goes into the programming there [at the Vanguard].”

Cécile McLorin Salvant (photo: Tim Dickeson)

Salvant spontaneously offers the provocative turn of phrase “an interesting disdain” when defining the perception of singers in the jazz community, as she unpacks the longstanding love-hate relationship between vocalist and instrumentalist, flagging up the diehard cliché that those whose ‘axe’ is the microphone, rather than horn or keyboard, somehow inevitably cleave to entertainment rather than art. Needless to say she finds succour in the profound creative chemistry across the singer-player divide, as embodied by the Billie Holiday-Lester Young paragon, and, perhaps more pertinently, the often avowed recognition of the importance of either a singer’s phrasing or everyday speech patterns in a player’s approach to their instrument. Salvant, in any case, is keen to hail the substantial musical bond between her and her band, pianist Aaron Diehl, double-bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers. However, the other salient fact in any profile of her is the considerable maturity she displays as an artist.

As can be heard on her 2014 aptly-titled Mack Avenue debut WomanChild the singer is an impressively complete performer who has a poise and leisurely time feel that often eludes many of her peers. Its follow up, For One To Love, was no less impressive, above all because of the varying degrees of subtlety and understatement that marked the use of a voice that can move authoritatively around a number of registers, be it a dark, shadowy contralto or a far lighter soprano.

The singer started studying voice within the context of classical music at the age of eight, and slowly shifted towards jazz as she entered her teenage years. Her work thus far builds on the acoustic balladry and finely honed swing, full of romance, wit and a healthy dose of world-weary cynicism, patented by such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae.

Salvant steps out of the cab and enters the building of her apartment, and there is an audible change of tone down the line, as the lower roof of the taxi now gives way to the high ceiling of her front room. The singer’s voice is even more distinct as she moves around the new space, but those who have bought Dreams And Daggers will be able to picture Salvant chez elle because the cover shows her earnest face reflected in an oval vanity mirror against the square black-and-white tiles of her bathroom floor, as if she were about to play a game of chess with her alter ego. The image is intriguing, if not a touch surreal.

One wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that aesthetics matter to her. This design is a worthy complement to the cover of For One To Love, a self-portrait by Salvant, who is indeed part of a coterie of artists – think William Hooker; William Parker; Miles Davis – who express/expressed themselves with brush or pencil, as well as microphone, bass or brass.

“I think I’m a more visual person than anything else,” she says, and her voice exudes noticeable warmth. “I paint a little bit… I do embroidery, I do appliqué and sculpting, I’m just really fascinated with visual art. It’s just something that I connect with on a really deep level and I find that I can find serious influences by looking at visual art.

“I don’t know how it would show up in my music, but I feel deep connections with certain paintings and certain artist’s work and I wanna be able to create something that resembles that,” she states. “It’s less tricky in terms of falling into the trap of imitating someone when you’re looking at a wood sculpture and saying I wanna be able to recreate the feeling of that sculpture through a song. I’m interested in performance art too, in dance, in theatre.

“To me performance art is kind of between visual art and something else, so even with my face I feel like, like… I’m going for something. I don’t know how to describe it, but I’m definitely going for something.”

Even if deprived of the privilege of seeing Salvant on stage the listener can certainly hear the impact she has on an audience throughout Dreams And Daggers. On the merry mischief of ‘Sam Jones’ Blues’ there are hearty reactions to key lines in the tale of a woman playing a dog-like partner at his own game. Salvant’s voice is skilfully graduated in line with the unfolding drama, but the fully engaged crowd suggests that the delivery may well have been enhanced by body language.

“I think so,” she concurs before elaborating. “That also goes with why I wanted to do a live album because that connection with the audience is also a visual connection. Sometimes it’s just a hand gesture, sometimes it’s the way you lean in towards people, or you look at them. A song can be interpreted in a completely different way just by a little move to the side, or a little shift.

“You can’t catch that in a studio, you cannot catch those tiny subtle things that happen when you’re in communication with people you can see and people that can see you… versus being in a booth far away from producers, and having a kind of obstructed visual element.”

With regard to formative experiences that may have strengthened this conviction, Salvant names two monumental figures in American culture – Barbara Streisand and Judy Garland – who are notable for their straddling of the worlds of singing and acting, an artform Salvant considers an integral part of her creative DNA. As she herself stated, gesture has its place in her performance and life in front of a camera holds a major attraction for Salvant. “Yeah, I think I just wanna be an actress,” she says emphatically. “I’ve always just wanted to be an actress… All my life, acting… it’s always been dear to my heart.”

Which inevitably raises the question of how much opportunity there might be in mainstream cinema for, as Salvant puts it, ‘someone who looks like me’, making a subtle reference to the fact that she is a dark skinned African-American, androgynously crop-haired and not a size-zero body shape, all features that probably close rather than open doors to studios where casting decisions are still narrow 15 years after the arguably not-so-significant moment of Halle Berry’s Oscar victory.

Then again, Cécile McLorin Salvant is not a black woman with an exclusively African-American or American perspective on the world.

Born and raised in Miami, she has a Haitian father and a French mother who has lived in Tunisia, Africa, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, and she takes a refreshingly open view on the minefield of identity politics, shooting both a yes and no to any attempt to pin down allegiances to a particular heartland. To call her a global citizen is neither here nor there. More telling is the fact that she is fluent in French and English.

France has played an integral part in her creative development in any case. As a teenager she spent four years in Aixes-en-Provence, and was encouraged to sing jazz, generally, by the greater appreciation she saw for the music in the mainstream, and, specifically, by her mentor Jean-Francois Bonnel. Furthermore, Salvant absorbed the rich traditions of chanson francaise and chanson réaliste embodied by the likes of Georges Brassens, Leo Ferré, Barbara, Jacques Brel and Damia, and considers these touchstones to be as important to her as the founding fathers and mothers of jazz. The two strands entwine quite brilliantly on ‘Si J’etais Blanche’, one of the highlights of Dreams And Daggers. Originally sung in the 1930s by Josephine Baker, symbol of France’s love affair with la vogue negre and the attendant, thorny phenomenon of exotica, the lyric – “If I Were White” in English – is anything but passé.

“Oh yes, it’s very contemporary,” says Salvant. “First of all there’s this underlying thing of wanting to be white, or wanting to have the privileges of a white woman, or be seen the way a white woman is looked at in terms of our beauty standards today. That’s a real thing.

“You know, I had my hair bleached blonde, then dyed it blue a couple of years ago, and the hairdresser mistakenly bleached part of my forehead, it was a lighter shade. And I was really pissed off. So I went online to find out how long does bleach last, and saw all these really scary forums about how to make bleach last longer for your skin so you’ll be lighter for a longer amount of time. Skin lightening is just the tip of the iceberg; it’s something that still happens today. It’s huge in Africa. So for me a song like ‘Si J’etais Blanche’ is still very, very real. “The idea of being white, it’s not only a shade thing… it’s an identity thing, white identity is allowed to be complex, to be all these things that the other groups are not. There are a lot of things there.”

Days before our interview most sane thinkers reeled from Donald Trump’s utterly reprehensible comments on the shocking scenes in Charlottesville, Virginia after white nationalism reared its ugly head. While condemnations rained down on his decision to equate the Ku Klux Klan with anti-Nazi protestors, Salvant was chilled to the bone.

“It’s a nightmare,” she thunders. “But it’s a nightmare that has not just started. It’s a nightmare that’s been going on. I don’t understand that this is the world we live in… and that people can be that idiotic. I honestly don’t understand all the stupidity, all the cruelty, all the opportunism, the power games, the things that feed this. I’m disgusted and fascinated. You think humans are intelligent, but we’re still doing this. Charlottesville… this whole situation is sort of a wake-up call. I don’t know that we can be fully going to hell, it doesn’t seem possible, maybe the community rebuilds as a result. But frankly I don’t know.”

As America seemingly goes backwards on equal rights the forward-thinking songs penned during segregation, such as Irving Berlin’s ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’, which Salvant elegantly covers, are timely.

“I sang that at a gig I had right after Trump was elected and it felt really, really weird! It was the first time that song felt that weird.

“Going back to the idea of dreams and daggers, the dagger to me is an instrument and defence. The dreams are the idea of hopes and that maybe the dream can be… in order to carry a dream you need to carry it with a dagger in your hand. Just thinking abut Martin Luther King’s speech; the “I have a dream” part and how beautiful it is, but we don’t think about that entire speech, and how there is not violence, but there is this kind of force and intensity that’s not all rainbows and dreams.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!

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