Cecile Mclorin-Salvant talked to Qwest TV about her 17-songs duo album, recorded with Sullivan Fortner, and the way she likes to work and think her art.
Almost from the moment she entered international jazz consciousness as the 2010 Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocal Competition winner, Cécile McLorin Salvant, who recently turned 29, has prompted comparisons — mostly favorable — to most eminent matrilineal practitioners of her chosen art. As documented on four Mack Avenue releases, including the Grammy-winning For One To Love and Dreams and Daggers, and most recently The Window, McLorin Salvant applies her unique tonal personality — which refracts and commingles elements of Sarah Vaughan and Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter, Carmen McRae and Blossom Dearie, Shirley Horn and Valaida Snow — to a vast stylistic range of repertoire along the entire 20th century timeline, including chanson, the low-down blues, the Broadway and Hollywood songbooks, and pop songs well-traveled and obscure.
Most notable is the admiration McLorin Salvant elicits from her peers, as evidenced in the following encomia quoted from DownBeat Blindfold Tests I’ve conducted in recent years. “Cécile has so much ability, such great respect for the music, and sings with so much personality,” Jane Monheit said of her performance of “Jitterbug Waltz,” from Woman Child. “Her instrument is magnificent — enormous range, a beautiful sound. She had an amazing genetic starting point, and she’s worked incredibly hard to develop her musicianship. She has a beautiful style that’s reminiscent of the greats but is unique to her — a seamless mix of traditional and modern. It’s uncanny that she knows exactly who she is at an age where no one does.”
“She’s so good and so young; it gives me hope,” Catherine Russell said of McLorin Salvant’s ironic, pitch-perfect rendition of “Wives and Lovers,” from For One To Love. “I love the heart and soul and expertise and precision. Her musicianship is flawless.”
“Cécile is moving in the direction of the film noir singers — Julie London, Doris Day, Anita O’Day,” Allan Harris said of her version of “You’re My Thrill,” from Dreams and Dragons. “But she’s much more adept in her voice, because she can go where Sarah Vaughan can, and they can’t. You can tell that the band is under her tutelage, too. She’s working them, saying, ‘I’m going here with my voice; I want you to bend with me.’ She’s letting you know, ‘I’m telling the story, and I have musicians behind me who are just going to play my story for me.’ That’s seasoning. She’s so young to have that seasoning, too. This is the early Sarah Vaughan, early Ella Fitzgerald, early Lena Horne. When you listen to these songstresses early, a lot of them were with a band. Cécile has bypassed all that. I love her voice. All the material she picks is tailored to her. She’s making a statement to everyone out there that she’s arrived. It’s like I’m looking at someone singing a movie track and inviting me into it. A very wonderful vocalist.”
On The Window, a duo date with Sullivan Fortner on piano and organ that comprises 17 songs, most of them on the subject of love, McLorin Salvant cedes some of the control to which Harris refers, opting instead for the spontaneity of an off-the-cuff conversational approach. It’s an accomplished, daring album, and will repay repeated listenings.
I’d like to first talk about repertoire. How much forethought goes into choosing what appears on a recital like The Window, which draws on so many different flavors and emotions and vibrations?
CMS: The albums I’ve made don’t exist for themselves and by themselves. They only happen because I’ve played with a certain group of people for a while, and established a repertoire with them over time. So I’m not planning on an album and thinking, “these are the songs that need to go on it.” Rather, I’m sort of looking back at the year of performances and choosing from all the songs we’ve done. So it is very much based on live performance, and how that works and changes.
I can say that every song I choose is because of something strange in the lyric, in the text, that shocked me or surprised me or made me laugh or was a different take on a situation. That attracts me to the song – and then I sing it. An example on The Window is a French song called “J’ai L’Cafard.” The title of the song alone attracted me. “J’ai L’Cafard” is a French expression that means “I have a cockroach in my soul; I’m depressed.” That cockroach image definitely conjures a bunch of things. But what made me decide to sing it is that it begins with the phrase, “No, I am not drunk,” which I find completely hilarious, and strange, and ironic — almost beginning mid-sentence, beginning with an answer, beginning with a kind of statement that no one would say unless they were drunk or completely out of it. I love entering into a scene like that.
Does that notion launch the remainder of your interpretation?
It’s a starting point. It piques my interest, but it’s not necessarily what ends up being central in the way I interpret it. If I sing it 15 times, I might not focus on this one beginning phrase. I might linger on another idea. But it is the thing that attracted me in the first place.
Another song is “Tell Me Why,” which is a beautiful ballad that I heard Jo Stafford sing — hers is the only version I know of it. My favorite part, and what made me want to sing it, occurs after the bridge. She describes this knight in shining armor, this ideal, and then after she has described it, she says, “You are not like him.” I think the lyric is, “I saw a charmer, a knight in shining armor, riding to me, come to me,” and then she says, “You’re not like him, and yet when you’re nearby, suddenly I’m feeling happy, so happy I want to cry – oh, tell me why.” I love that coming down to earth idea, or anything that brings us back down to the quotidian thing of life, what happens every day — even though we’re in this epic, sweeping love song. A lot of those songs I’m attracted to deal with identity in an interesting way. The songs on this album are love songs, but it’s not because I necessarily want to talk about love. It’s more because I think a love song is a great pretext for dealing with identity in an interesting way, understanding how we interact with the world, understanding power dynamics.
Is this kind of intersectionality something you’re wanting to project directly to your audience? Is it a subtext?
It’s part of the way that I like to look at things, outside of performance. So it leaks into my performances, my choice of repertoire — everything that I do is just a reflection of me. But I don’t go in with a mission to uncover certain “truths” or pose questions. Although I guess a lot of what I do is a questioning. I’m sharing these personal questions that I have with the people who come to listen, but I’m not throwing a message at them.
I want to return to your remark that after singing a song 15 times you might focus on another section in the lyric that strikes you. How long does it take you to assimilate a song. You draw from an extremely deep well of songs, you’ve sung a lot of them, and you seem to project a fully formed point of view on all of them.
It changes. Anything that we read, any text (even without talking about the music, because the music is even another layer), anything we deal with more than once, 10 times, hundreds of times, certain things reveal themselves. On The Window there’s a song called “Obsession,” which I’ve known all my life, because my mom played it all the time at the house when I was growing up. I had a very superficial understanding of the song. Then I started to sing it, and I started to really get into certain phrases that I didn’t know were there, or hadn’t even paid attention to — the kind of deceitful quality in that song. Or “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” which I’ve loved singing for years, and it still reveals itself in different ways. Time has passed, and I’m older, and I’ve experienced more things, I’ve observed more things, and I’m in a different place, so I receive it differently. That’s exciting, because it means that there are endless possibilities. Or, hopefully there are endless possibilities.
The Window starts with “Visions,” by Stevie Wonder and then “One Step Ahead,” which was an Aretha Franklin vehicle. Did you think of that sequencing beforehand? Did it take shape after you’d recorded everything?
It took shape after. Once again, the album is kind of an afterthought, a byproduct of these gigs we do. The sequence is always changing. We never do the same set list twice. Especially with Sullivan. We’ll be backstage, I come up with a random song we’ve never even talked about, I say, “do you know this song?” and he’s like, “Uh…ok, maybe, I think I remember it” — and then we do it.
We recorded 18 songs in the studio, then 20-25 songs live, then we narrowed it down and shaped all of this raw material. I originally wanted to start with “One Step Ahead.” Sullivan suggested we start with “Visions.” I wasn’t attached to either one! Both are beautiful songs. We went for it from there. But it did feel like a good bookend vibe to begin with with “Visions” and then end the album with “The Peacocks.” They mirror each other in interesting ways, in their musical feeling but also lyrically and in terms of the text. “The Peacocks” also deals with a point of view — with this vision from a window. It deals with beauty. It deals with illusions. And it deals with time in an interesting way. “Visions” does something similar. To me, they might be two different takes on a similar idea.
Why the title, The Window?
It’s the beginning of“The Peacocks.” That’s one reason. Also to me the idea of a window evokes many things. If you think about a window, obviously you’re thinking about a visual exchange, whether it’s from the outside-in or the inside-out. There’s the psychological window, the idea of the way that we see things — what we see through our eyes and what we see through our perception. There’s a lot of different avenues. I think the album deals with a lot of those ideas.
Sullivan Fortner’s presence is an obvious difference between The Window and your three previous Mack Avenue albums, on which you’ve worked with Aaron Diehl, an extremely accomplished, erudite pianist, who knows your intuitions and personality.
I’d been doing a good amount of gigs with Sullivan, and I really wanted to record with him. He’s also a singer. He knows an enormous amount of repertoire. He is able to learn a song in two minutes and then play it in any key. I love his spontaneity, his creativity, the fact that he’s a virtuoso but it sounds almost like he’s stumbling upon ideas, like he’s kind of following something, following a muse and kind of yielding to that in a way that I admire. I wish I had more of that in my sound and approach. But I think Sullivan is very much in control, even though he gives you the impression that he’s not. It’s the balance of these two qualities. There’s also a strangeness to his playing, a humor and a lightness. He’s saying very deep things in this relaxed, nonchalant way, and it’s so-so-so-so rich.
We’re in an age of auto-tune, where people overdub everything, want everything to be perfect, but the aesthetic you’re describing seems to be the opposite of that.
We recorded this while I was in the middle of writing my Ogresse project, which took a year-and-a-half of planning and deciding and talking over points, and editing and doing things over, and removing songs, and coming up with an idea and then completely going a different direction — a lot of preparation. To me, this album is in the spirit of a lot of older jazz albums where people just showed up and played, and it wasn’t so pored-over and organized and conceptualized. I needed to be in a situation where we’re not organizing things so much in advance and planning things out, where we have this spontaneous give-and-take and whatever happens, happens.
Do you also bring that spontaneous attitude to the trio with Aaron Diehl?
Well, I think with the trio there quite a bit of spontaneity and “we’ll figure it out on the gig.” But still, it’s three people. We like going in with a plan. You can’t get away with shooting a song at them, like, 5 minutes before the show and saying, like, “Do you know this? Let’s just try this.” Sometimes we completely reroute it, and do something totally different on the gig, but not that often. Now, over months of touring we develop the skeleton of these set arrangements, often by Aaron Diehl, sometimes by (bassist) Paul Sikivie, and then play almost a completely different arrangement on top of the arrangement that we already had, to the point that it’s almost unrecognizable. There’s a lot of fun in that, too, because we’re constantly disrupting our own order. Whereas in a duo setting, there is no real order, there is no plan, so it’s almost like we’re creating something that feels like it has a direction, like it has a skeleton, even though it doesn’t.
I think you’ve done three performances of Ogresse now. Can you describe it, and talk about why you decided to embark on a project of this scope?
It’s difficult to describe. The form is modeled on French Baroque cantatas, where the narrator is essentially one singer who embodies all these different characters. The narrator is telling a story, quite often rubato; all the songs are in the characters that the narrator is embodying. As the story progresses, there’s a beginning, middle and end, there’s definitely a moving-forward of a plot line. Ogresse doesn’t sound anything like these Baroque cantatas, but it’s a little bit like that. Or like these folk storytellers who are narrators embodying different characters, and they’re, like, “Let me tell you a story about so-and-so, and so-and-so said this,” and then you hear them get into that character.
It’s a story about an Ogresse, who lives in the woods. Obviously, the idea of an Ogresse is in itself the beginning, middle and end of a story, because it is a literal monster that eats people! So we have a vague idea of what’s going to happen and how it unfolds. But it’s definitely in the details of how it unfolds that I think it comes alive. Darcy James Argue’s arrangements are so beautiful. He’s conducting. There’s a string quartet. A lot of people are doubling instruments. Warren Wolf plays marimba and vibraphone. David Wong is playing bass. There’s Samuel Torres on percussion. There’s a piano, organ, melodica, tuba, trombone, oboe, tenor sax, English horn, and soprano sax. There’s a banjo and guitar.
It’s completely different from anything I’ve done before. It’s all music and lyrics that I wrote, and I wrote the story. It borrows from a lot of American folk traditions in storytelling, and also in terms of the music — there’s elements of bluegrass and folk music and blues, rural country blues, country music. There’s also influences of my Classical and Baroque backgrounds, and Broadway a little bit, and vaudeville, and jazz. It’s a coming-together of all of these things that I’m interested in.
What can you say about assimilating all of these flavors?
Growing up, I had a vague impression of bluegrass, of Appalachian music, of American folk music, from my mom’s love of that music. But it was very vague. I had some impression of the great jazz singers, the famous jazz singers everybody knows and everybody talks about. I’d listen to them — mostly Sarah Vaughan, and that’s about it. But as a teenager, I started getting interested in my sister’s Grunge and Punk records. Now, my sister is eight years older than me, so I was listening to Grunge 10-15 years after it had made its big splash in the ’90s. But I was very attracted to that gritty sound, the revolution type of feeling. I think that’s common to a lot of teenagers, who think they’re going to somehow change the world, that they’re part of this super-cutting-edge thing.
At the same time, I was interested in classical music and I wanted to be a classical singer. So these two things were balancing out. When I moved to France, I started working with this jazz teacher and musician (Jean-François Bonnel). I was listening to and being attracted to Sarah Vaughan, but I was also finding out about this whole gritty underbelly to jazz, which is what made me go from liking jazz to actually loving it and being obsessed with it. All these things I liked about Punk and Grunge, that I thought were completely not in Jazz, I realized, on the contrary, they were very much in American music, in jazz music — that they probably influenced a lot of these Grunge artists, either indirectly or directly, if I mention all these blues musicians I started to listen to, like Elizabeth Cotton, Big Bill Broonzy, Bessie Smith… I can go on.
So I found the thing that I was looking for in jazz. I’d only been made familiar with cocktail jazz. Elegant jazz. Music for going on a date. Jazz for romance. Jazz for adults. Jazz for a nice evening with candlelight. Classy. At 18 years old, you don’t want to be classy. You don’t want to be elegant. You want to be inspired to be, like, revolutionary, and you want to be radical. Ugliness is attractive, all of a sudden. Now I think I embrace multiple elements. But at the time I didn’t want to sound pretty or elegant. I still fight against that in a way. I don’t want it to sound put-together. I want it to sound a little bit like a mistake. I’m attracted to that, I think, as a baseline.
How much practicing do you do? Do you sing every day? And what’s the nature of your practice?
There’s actually very little singing in my practicing. I stick to a strict routine, focusing on a particular order of things every day. I only can do that when I’m home. . .so when I am home, it’s almost maniacal. It’s not a long time practicing, but everything is super-organized. There’s a lot of playing the piano, transcribing things or obsessively listening to things over and over and over again. I do some classical singing. Also, I took up the lute, I practice it every day when I’m home, and then I try to bring it on tour and practice it when I can. It ends up being all a little bit indirect. I don’t directly press on the thing that I do, which is singing jazz.
What the word “jazz” means to people at this moment is a tricky proposition. How broad is jazz for you? Is jazz a genre? An attitude? A collection of histories?
When I say “I sing jazz,” it’s obviously a shorthand statement for: “I sing American Music.” It’s an interesting statement, because it’s so heavy and it means so much to certain people, and it’s also such a broad term. I don’t really know where it begins and ends. Part of Ogresse for me is about our understanding of American music, our understanding of jazz, of expressions of Black American Music, and how, over time, we almost can’t see that word any more because it’s so huge, it encompasses so much. Because what does it mean? It’s so heavy to deal with the tradition of jazz, to deal with its innovative quality.
People ask, “Do you consider yourself a jazz musician?” Well, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Saying you’re a jazz musician is akin to saying you’re an artist. It is such an arrogant statement almost. Basically it’s this music that a lot of people in my generation definitely don’t like, or if you tell them that it’s jazz, they’re like, “I don’t want to listen to that.” I’m not worried enough about the word, and what it means, to shy away from it. I think I’m sort of attracted to it because it is so maligned and there’s so much disdain among certain people around what “jazz” means and what it is. If there’s not a disdain, then there’s this, like, incredible pride and mission vibe of certain jazz musicians, who are, “I’m upholding the tradition of jazz, and jazz is so important, and I’m doing God’s work.” I think it’s fascinating and hilarious that the word is so heavy, and encompasses so many things, and it’s so unexplainable, and also, like, “Is it dead?” or “Is it not dead?” So in a way, I kind of claim it in all its ugliness and its contradictions.
I like to do a lot of embroidery, and my next project is going to be to embroider a shirt with “Jazz is dead” on it, and then wear that on gigs.
Along those lines, your albums feature your drawings, your calligraphy, your design — you take control of all aspects of the production, and imbue them with your stamp, your personal style.
Well, I don’t know if it’s because I’m a control freak. I could just take care of the music and not worry about any of the other things. But I love visual art. I love to draw. I love to paint. I did darkroom photography when I was in high school, and I would skip class and go develop photos. I love all this stuff. So I figure if I love it, and I want to do it, then it’s an even better reflection of the musician who’s making the album, and where I’m at when I’m making it. Why hire somebody to do it and figure it out, when I can just do it myself?
When I was doing the cover for The Window, my whole apartment was covered with cardboard paper and construction paper and paints. I was sending different drawings to friends and being like, “What do you think about this?” and getting feedback, and people said, “No, that’s ugly,” and then I’d wait a couple of days and do it over, and finally would figure it out. That’s such a fun process.
Cecile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue Records)