“I sang the whole song in the shower, and then frantically I rushed to find a recording device” | Cécile McLorin Salvant: Mischief and Magic

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Cécile McLorin Salvant is one of the music’s great communicators. Kevin Le Gendre met her to discuss her album Ghost Song and found the singer in a garrulous but thoughtful mood

Cécile McLorin Salvant (photo: Shawn Michael Jones)
Cécile McLorin Salvant (photo: Shawn Michael Jones)

Like all ordinary mortals, international artists on tour in the age of Covid have had to endure the pressure of form-filling and testing that simply did not exist before the pandemic. Entry to certain countries is by no means guaranteed and there is always the grim possibility of the virus being passed on backstage or during downtime. The risks are real.

The sight of a masked, distanced Cécile McLorin Salvant in her dressing room, readying for what would be a stellar performance at Cadogan Hall as part of last November’s London jazz festival made the risks clear enough.

Yet the following day, speaking from her hotel before she headed to the airport to catch a flight to Dusseldorf, Germany, the 32-year-old American singer, for whom Europe is a second home when it comes to gigging, points out she has long had another concern with regard to her live performances. It has to do with communication, not contagion.

“Specifically, it felt really good to be back with an English-speaking audience,” she says of the London show. “During the tour we’ve been to a lot of different countries and while I know a lot of people speak English I think the fact that I’m with an audience that gets some of the subtleties of the texts and lyrics… well, it just feels great.”

Born in Miami to a Haitian father and French mother, Salvant was perhaps predestined to have an avowed interest in the finer points of vocabulary and rhetoric – in whatever tongue she chooses to speak. Regardless of the large numbers of citizens of the world for whom Spanish is a first language, a fact often discarded in debates on Anglophone hegemony, there is still a diehard assumption that everybody in any country anywhere speaks English, which remains for the most part the dominant lingua franca in the canon of jazz vocal.

Salvant recognises the potential problems caused by this status quo.

“Yeah, whether it’s a big barrier depends on many things,” she says. “If your basis for choosing songs is lyrics then it becomes an interesting challenge to say not everyone is gonna get all the lyrics you’re singing. Then you go, uhm, wait, what’s the point if people don’t understand the storyline? So you just find other ways to express things.”

Her careful use of gesture and movement on stage lends credence to that view, but the crystalline clarity of her timbre and unhurried grace of her phrasing also loom large whether heard in a small club or concert halls, as does her ability to inhabit a song-as-story right to its emotional core and mine it vividly without extracting crude melodrama.

When Salvant won plaudits for her album WomanChild in 2013 the prevailing line in the press was that here was the winner of the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, making good on the abundant talent that had won over the judging panel, and that her studies at the renowned New School in Manhattan were paying off.

Her memorable Caribbean-inflected name was one to be duly noted.

While not untrue, these facts should not deflect attention from what was a defining chapter in the singer’s life. At the age of 18 she left her native Florida, and a household where she was exposed to a blend of West Indian, African-American, Latin and classical music, and moved to Aix-en Provence, France initially to study baroque voice at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory before switching to improvisatory approaches.

Salvant became aware of real linguistic barriers after her first gigs.

“The reason I sing that way is because I started out singing jazz in France,” she says of the country that took Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet to its hearts. “I needed to find a way for people to understand what I was saying and that stayed with me, even with English-speaking audiences.”

Ironically, Salvant has sung in French on all her albums to date, defining herself as an artist who bridges many cultures. To listen to the eye of the needle accuracy with which she negotiates works such as ‘Si J’etais Blanche’, a penetrating treatise on race, from 2017’s Dreams And Daggers, or ‘J’ai L’ Cafard’ from 2018’s The Window alongside ‘The Gentleman Is A Dope’ or ‘Mad About The Boy’ is to hear a world of song in which francophone writers have their place next to their Anglophone counterparts. Salvant indirectly reminds us that one of the greatest of jazz standards ‘Autumn Leaves’ first came from the pen of feted French poet Jacques Prévert. And that we all love ‘April in Paris’.

Literature, in any case, is an integral part of her artistic and creative life. Salvant gleefully confesses to a love of reading, whether the format be print or audio books, and her forthcoming album Ghost Song is an engrossing consolidation of her ability to use melody and lyric as a premise for finely shaded narrative that resonates with the art of writing in the broadest sense. Salvant is a keen student of etymology.

“Getting into the different meanings of words is great. I really think that there’s a lot of humour and play that can happen in language, it’s just that I’ve found that I can have fun with it and I connect with it.”

At the Cadogan Hall concert last year, Salvant unveiled an astounding version of ‘Wuthering Heights’, the preparation for which took her deep into the world of Emily Bronté, who penned the 1847 novel, which singer-songwriter Kate Bush adapted with such bravado that Salvant was épatée when she first heard
it after her elder sister had requested the song for her wedding playlist.

“The reason I sing the way I do is because I started out singing jazz in France. I needed to find a way for people to understand what I was saying and that stayed with me, even with English-speaking audiences”

Enthralled as she was by the way Heathcliff is haunted by Catherine in Bronté’s tale, Salvant also set about writing original material that broaches the theme of torrid emotional torture amid the departure of a lover on Ghost Song, arguably one of her finest creations to date as a composer insofar as it extends a long lineage of folk, blues and jazz ballads in which confessions waft like lonely clouds over a deftly mapped chordal landscape. As if guided by a mischief-maker spirit the piece came to her in circumstances that were anything but scripted.

“I sang the whole song in the shower, and then frantically, sopping wet with soap all over the apartment I rushed to find a recording device so that I wouldn’t forget it,” she explains with quite a self-mocking laugh.

“Then I sat at the piano and worked it out. I think I just followed my intuition. I had this simple idea for the song, I don’t know if it started with the idea of dancing with the ghost of a memory, almost celebrating yearning, longing and loss, but genuinely celebrating it.

“It’s something that is probably an observation from my own life but also centuries of loss, of stories of love of loss that I’ve heard about and that I’ve read, observing other people’s love stories and how they deal with grief…and living with grief, almost like an imaginary friend.

“I remember reading Patti Smith’s book,” she continues, again cross-referencing her literary leanings. “Where she talks about the people who have died, sometimes they’re with her, she walks through life as if they were there. I really believe that idea of whatever you visualise you experience, I think that’s something that’s been actually proven.

“For somebody who’s so fond of stories and so fond of escaping, you can lead multiple lives through stories, through your imagination you can go anywhere, you can be with whoever you want whenever, even people that are gone, people it’s impossible to be with. I just wanted to access that idea, it’s not something I planned on, it just came out.”

The spontaneity also led to a couplet that stands out like a lonely, ashen figure on Bronté’s brooding Yorkshire moors, and sees Salvant make a revealing statement on the paradoxes of human behaviour.

My pride is my only company,

My pride will get the best of me.

“The idea is of pride being your company, because pride can be such an isolating thing, it becomes your only companion if you’re not careful,” she says with a touch of resignation, if not weariness.

“Because it’s the idea of do you wanna be right or be happy, or feed your ego or let that go a little bit… and compromise? But (I suppose) it’s also the idea of pride getting in the way of saying what you really feel and getting in the way of acknowledging that you made a mistake, or saying sorry, or saying ‘I miss you.’ Whatever it may be pride is a really powerful thing, it can be a good thing, but it’s also isolating.”

Meaningful as the words are on ‘Ghost Song’, they are enhanced by arrangements that mark a considerable shift in Salvant’s sonic world. While her first albums saw her work very effectively with a piano trio led by the excellent Aaron Diehl, one of the pillars of her new ensemble is the fabulous guitarist Marvin Sewell, a man who has made a significant contribution to the music of Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright and Greg Osby among others since the early 1990s.

Born and raised in Chicago, Sewell has a flawless command of blues and jazz, and is able to bring immense subtlety and attention to detail to any context in which he appears. He is a perfect fit for Salvant’s music but their meeting was not planned. Sewell came to her by chance.

“I think I kind of let the circumstances of life lead,” the singer explains breezily. “Marvin is someone I met through a concert series I did with Terri Lyne Carrington, where she invited me to sing with Lizz Wright and Angelique Kidjo a few years ago. And Marvin was playing and I absolutely fell in love with his playing. I had heard him on albums but I’d never seen him play live and I just loved it.

“It was one of those things where you just bookmark it and go okay, ‘let me keep him in mind if he’s interested.’ I knew I wanted either a guitar or a banjo, or a wind instrument (for Ghost Song), I wasn’t sure whether I wanted bass or no bass, so we just kept testing things out, this idea for a band. It sorted of formed itself, with the help of Sullivan Fortner (the gifted organist-pianist who features on Dreams And Daggers and The Window), who largely helped me produce the album.”

That projects will organically happen rather than being forced into existence is paramount to Salvant’s whole creative concept, regardless of the advance minutiae of her approach to vocal performance and arrangements in general. She is at an interesting juncture in her career insofar as her accomplished discography reflects both deployment of talent and serious study of the major voices that have paved the way for her, be it Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan or the aforesaid Wilson. Yet the sense of Salvant finding herself and staying very true to her unique cultural back story has increasingly pervaded her output.

“I sang the whole song in the shower, and then frantically, sopping wet with soap all over the apartment, I rushed to find a recording device so that I wouldn’t forget it...”

Perhaps more importantly, Salvant has also started to rethink why she makes certain artistic choices and actively question her primary motivations along with the references and sources of inspiration to which she is minded to turn. She happily enters the debate over musical education and what actually constitutes proper and correct models for approaching composition and improvisation, or whether the incumbent may even be considered as legitimate in the first place.

“I’ve moved away from the idea of wanting to be impressive and towards the idea of what can I learn from an untrained voice, a person who doesn’t consider themselves a singer,” she states emphatically.

“And I’ve moved towards the idea that a lot of my favourite singers now are people who don’t consider themselves singers, people who are maybe instrumentalists who sometimes sing. So it’s learning from other sources, and that also extends to learning about expression from choreographers and visual artists and literature, from actors, from photographers, and really looking at this thing, or trying to look at it with a wider lens, and constantly widening the lens and trying at least to blur the lines, to blur categories. And that goes for genre in music.”

By no means the first artist to argue this point, Salvant nonetheless has a particular investment in it, possibly because of the way she has been negotiating cultures and languages from her birth, which is a complex, enriching reality that has been consolidated by travel and, pertinently, a keen interest in many forms of creativity, be it high, or lowbrow.

Salvant thus makes a point of praising stand-up comedians, which makes perfect sense given the quick-fire improvisatory qualities the best exponents have, while her interest in painting and drawing has been anything but cursory. Like Miles Davis, she has used her own efforts, which are often laden with bits of text, on her CD sleeves.

Visual art has been a source of freedom as well as an outlet for ideas. With no prompting Salvant picks up the thread of the earlier part of our conversation on orthodoxy and the need to work around it.

“In painting I didn’t care if I wasn’t trained and didn’t care if what I did was “wrong” or against the rules of whatever, or whoever decided what the rules are,” she sighs. “Which is something that I still struggle with in music. I’m still afraid to suggest something that would be considered wrong harmonically, or wrong in whatever way, and I don’t have that when I draw. So I think that was a turning point, just to realise that I could try to approach music the way that I approach drawing, which is just like a kid. I mean kids know, kids have it, kids are artists… until they get it knocked out of them.”

She chuckles, like an enfant terrible.

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

Subscribe from only £6.75

Start your journey and discover the very best music from around the world.


View the Current

Take a peek inside the latest issue of Jazzwise magazine.

Find out more