Cecile McLorin Salvant
Deep jazz talent
by Jud Branam
From the June, 2014 issue
Catching a star on the rise is one of the joys of concert-going. Among the many stellar acts on the docket of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, one show promises to be a lasting treat for fans of classic jazz, New Orleans blues, and conspicuous young talent on the rise: Jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, a twenty-four-year-old dynamo of styles, languages, and musical genres, comes to the Power Center on June 18.
Born in Miami to a French mother and Haitian father, McLorin Salvant spoke French as her first language. She began her studies in the classical music tradition, starting on piano at age five and joining the Miami Choral Society at age eight. When it came time for college, McLorin Salvant bypassed U.S. conservatories and jazz schools, heading instead to Aix-en-Provence in France, where she continued to develop as a singer, but with an emphasis on Classical and Baroque vocal music as well as jazz.
Since then, she has added deep studies of selected jazz artists, notably early blues singer Bessie Smith, to her arsenal. Her shows move seamlessly from evocations of Smith, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington to more open jazz stylings, folk songs like "John Henry Was A Steel Driving Man," and pop covers. Her voice moves from deep, throaty storytelling to high, operatic notes.
Her moves among musical styles feel not so much like a constant synthesis as a curated move through genres, touching on classic blues, combo jazz, and torch singing in their turn. Her showy personality, breathtaking grasp of wide-ranging material, and virtuosic pipes are a compelling combination.
She often sings rarely performed chestnuts, like the comedic blues of Bert Williams' 1906 composition "Nobody" and the vamping, racially incorrect "You Bring Out the Savage In Me" from the 1930s, complete with Tarzan-style yodeling. "I'm trying to get people to think a little bit about who they are and how they relate to other people in society and how they think about race or sexism or homophobia or whatever it is," McLorin Savant told the San Jose Mercury News. "But I'm not trying to be a political artist. The main thing is to generate deep, deep emotions in people and to get them away from their everyday lives."
[Originally published in June, 2014.]