Cecile McLorin Salvant: Race, sex and all that jazz

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Cecile McLorin Salvant: Race, sex and all that jazz


But that's on record, or on stage. American jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant's speaking voice is a lesser thing, especially when it arrives all strangled and tinny with a wash of echo down the phone from New York.

"How do I handle praise?" she says when I read her scattered lines from a few frothing reviews. "I don't pay too much attention to it because otherwise it would be problematic. I take it as a compliment without lingering on it too much."

She's coming here, in just a few weeks, with gigs in both the New Zealand Festival in Wellington and the Auckland Arts Festival. Cue widespread outbreaks of ecstatic "jazz hands" from local music fans.

Born in Miami with a French mother and a Haitian father, classically trained in France, Salvant has been called "the hottest new voice in American jazz right now".

Her third album For One To Love won the Best Jazz Vocal Grammy in 2016.

"The finest jazz singer to emerge in the last decade" said The New York Times, celebrating Salvant's ability to reinvigorate jazz standards and find fresh thrills within vaudeville, blues, gospel and folk music.

Partly recorded live at New York's Village Vanguard, her fourth album Dreams And Daggers arrived late last year, and had critics lining up to testify to her "swinging virtuosity", her "gorgeously refined" vocal arrangements, her "titanic abilities".

"You only get a singer like this once in a generation or two," said jazz giant Wynton Marsalis, who's such a fan of this Miami-based vocalist, he hired her to front his jazz orchestra, twice.

"Well, you know, I like to think that the songs I choose are as interesting as my voice," she says. "I like songs that talk about identity and power dynamics in an unexpected way. I also like songs that are funny, or inappropriate in some way, to the extent that you might not expect to hear them in a jazz context. People often think jazz means clean and family friendly, but really, this is music that began in the brothel. I like songs with a little edge."

As an example, she cites a succession of sexist and racist songs she covers both live and on record, their sentiments even more jarring when delivered by such a spectacular voice.

"To me, if you laugh at something that's hurtful, that has so much more power than crying over it. Humour helps you heal, and it helps you express complicated and difficult ideas in a way where people will let them in more easily. Also, in the history of American music, sexist or racist songs are part of our tradition too. We like to try and clean everything up retroactively, like… nah, we're all good. But really, we're not, and some songs written 50 or 70 years ago make you think- Well, how much has really changed?"

Salvant's killer rendition of Wives and Lovers is one such song. Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David in 1963 and made famous by Frank Sinatra, it's a stark and un-ironic cautionary message to every married woman that she should be pretty and subservient at all times so her man doesn't leave her.

"Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your make-up, soon he will open the door…" sings Salvant, eyebrow arched. "Don't think because there's a ring on your finger you needn't try any more. For wives should always be lovers too, run to his arms the moment he comes home to you. I'm warning you…"

When she sings it on stage, Salvant can feel the tension building. There's often an audible sigh of collective relief from the audience when the song finishes.

"Oh, I love that song! It's about how certain unreasonable responsibilities are heaped onto people. In this song, it's the woman's fault for not staying pretty enough to keep her unfaithful man. It's interesting where the blame is placed."

One of Salvant's primary inspirations when it comes to vocal power, personal politics and song choice is Bessie Smith.

"Bessie Smith is iconic and incredible to me. She had strength, vulnerability, power and frailty, and an amazing, exciting repertoire of songs. A lot of her songs deal with things people didn't sing about at the time, like sex and food and savages and women trying to regain the rights to the house and land when they split from a man. She has one song about suicide, where she lists all the different ways she's gonna kill herself. It's such a taboo topic, but there she is, not just threatening, like, if you don't love me, I'll kill myself. She goes into detail: I'm gonna poison myself, jump out of a tree, throw myself off a building or a bridge. It's really intense, and I love that. She's thought through all the options!"

It strikes me that part of Salvant's appeal is that she steers away from many well-worn jazz singer tropes. She started out singing classical music, and doesn't go in for extended bouts of meandering melisma or cocktail bar clichés.

With a bell-clear soprano and an unusually juicy bass register, Salvant's voice is rich, striking, endlessly nuanced, a straight-up heartbreaker. She connects to the emotional current of her songs like a plug in a socket, giving the listener a hefty jolt.

"What can I tell you? I'm a failed actor! I always wanted to be an actress, but found out I could sing, so I dramatise the hell out of these songs. I've always been interested getting into character, and really get to the root of how to express a complex emotion."

Weirdly, singing also makes her feel like she's pulling her weight.

"If I spend too long without singing, I feel like I'm a useless leech on society!" she says, letting loose a big throaty chuckle. "When I sing, I feel like I have a purpose, and it's very affirming to me. I also like to challenge the misconception that jazz is some sort of musical museum piece, but I guess some artforms are doomed to be misunderstood and not attract the larger audiences they deserve. Think of poets, and how small their audience is, yet they're making some of the most moving and beautiful work a human being can make. Jazz is similar. It's frustrating that people think of it as old and dusty and no fun and too challenging or whatever. And it's just not true."

Who comes along to her live shows? Are there many young fans, or does she look out over a sea of grey-headed aging hipsters?

"There are a lot of older jazz fans, for sure. And some young. And people on dates!"

She laughs again, clearly tickled by the idea that her painstakingly selected repertoire- songs of wronged women and no-good men; ballads of busted relationships going down in flames; gnarly race-comedy tunes reclaimed from "blackface" plantation minstrels of the late 1800s- might have been chosen by listeners who are hoping to get laid.

"Some people think my show's gonna set up some sort of romantic atmosphere, but that's often not the case. I sang a song at one gig about adultery, and this man came up afterwards. He said – 'Please can you sign this CD for my wife and tell her I will always love her. We got into a huge fight because that song reminded her of something I did. Now I really need to get back in her good graces'. I just said – Sorry I ruined your date."

Cecile McLorin Salvant and the Aaron Diehl Trio play the New Zealand Festival in Wellington on Tuesday, March 13 and Auckland Arts Festival on Thursday, March 14.

Read the full piece from: Stuff

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