At 21, an age that finds many of us grinding it out in unpaid internships or entry-level jobs (if we're lucky), vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant had already won the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, one of the jazz world's most prestigious honors. By 23, she'd released an astonishing album, "WomanChild," earning critical raves and a Grammy nod in the jazz vocal category (she lost to fellow rising star Gregory Porter). For a young musician, "WomanChild" sounds nothing like the work of a nervous rookie; Salvant arrived fully-formed, a virtuosic, shape-shifting singer with a love for near-ancient songs.
How Salvant interprets standards and long-shelved nuggets is often surprising, yielding kinetic results; last summer, at an outdoor concert in Harlem, a group of older, well-dressed folks — electrified by Salvant's deep-pocketed take on the Harry Warren-Al Dubin standard "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me" — danced spontaneously near the stage.
"There have been moments at concerts that have been amazing for me," Salvant said by phone from her new home in Harlem, where she'd moved from Miami only a month before. "The whole experience has been shock after shock…When we have a sold-out gig it's incredible, and it's been happening more and more. It's insane that I even have an album out on a label."
Salvant wasn't new to the studio environment when "WomanChild" sessions commenced. At 19, she recorded "Cécile," an album's worth of songs, with Jean-François Bonnel's Quintet in Paris. She finds certain things about the recording process bothersome; the lack of audience, she said, "takes away from that give-and-take." Salvant bristled when she thought of re-recorded and overdubbed parts, and prefers — like many jazzers — to get her ideas down in no more than one or two attempts.
Still, there are upsides to being in the studio. "You don't have to deal with a sound system that is not so great on certain stages," Salvant said. "You can hear yourself better than anywhere else. The volume is controlled, and that directly affects how I sing. Typically, I'll sing a lot softer." For the next go-round, Salvant hopes more of the recording will happen with the musicians playing together in the same room, rather than isolated in sound-proof booths.
"I've been thinking about it a lot, because I want to figure it out," Salvant said. "My favorite tracks that we recorded, in terms of the process and feeling, were duos with Aaron Diehl, without headphones... Typically, engineers will find that the sound is better when the sound is isolated. That's the ideal for them, and it makes for a beautiful-sounding record. But you're always going to lose that sense of immediacy or connection, that ability to look at [other musicians] directly instead of behind the glass, turning your head at a certain angle. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned."
Repertoire-wise, Salvant gravitates towards standards or obscure songs with unusual rhythmic tics or hints of melodic weirdness.
"They usually have something bizarre in them," she said, "something different than what we typically hear... I also like to sing songs that I can really identify with and that I have a perspective that makes me somebody able to sing those lyrics." It's not enough for a tune to be beautiful; she has to have the feeling of being credible, although "I'm mostly fascinated by the stories, the characters they portray and the rhythm of the songs…It's become almost central to the way I sing." She listens to Lil Armstrong and Ethel Waters, and also singer-songwriters and hip-hop artists. "A lot of songs I choose are older songs," Salvant said, "from the '20s or '30s, or even older. I love folk songs."
After her recitative-like take on Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" (she said she recorded her take as a solo), Salvant slides and shudders, with near-Middle-Eastern intonation, into the Harry M. Woods song "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," written in 1934 and recorded a year later by Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson's Orchestra. Salvant composed "WomanChild," the title track, herself, a modal-jazz story with semi-autobiographical undertones: "WomanChild staggers, a hesitative step / How can they expect a girl to walk in stride / She can't stand erect without someone beside."
Much of the credit behind the success of "WomanChild" is owed to her exceptional band (led by pianist Aaron Diehl), who matches Salvant's free associations step-for-step, changing tempos and rhythmic feels on the fly. They push when Salvant rises and recede when the singer gets introspective, as on the Gordon/Revel number "There's a Lull in My Life" (previously recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, among others). "The clock… stops… ticking…" Salvant intones, sculpting words more than singing them. There's a palpable, almost synesthetic sense of the physical in her phrasing. "The world stops turning… everything stops but the pain in my heart that keeps burning."
On April 5, Salvant performs at West Hartford Town Hall, as part of Jazz for Juvenile Diabetes, a cocktail-attire affair hosted annually by Dr. Steven Sussman. It's a must-attend event for singers; while Salvant herself doesn't regularly go out to hear other vocalists, a recent performance by cabaret singer Maude Maggart served up some new song ideas.
"I didn't expect to want to take notes, but I ended up writing down the songs she was singing," Salvant said. "I like to find singers who are less well-known."
CÉCILE MCLORIN SALVANT performs on Saturday, April 5, at West Hartford Town Hall, 50 S. Main St., West Hartford. Event begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $150 (hors d'oeuvres, drinks, dinner and dessert). Information: jazzforjuvenilediabetes.com.
Editor's note: This story has been edited from an earlier version to correct the spelling of Maude Maggart's name.