Text: Jan Paersch, 1 February 2024
Translation: Clive Williams
It’s said of some musicians that they were able to foresee their artistic career while still at primary school. Keith Jarrett was already performing on TV shows at the age of five, while Stevie Wonder could play the harmonica better than almost any adult at the age of ten. And then there are those who took much longer. Cécile McLorin Salvant is one of them: »At 16, I would never have dreamed of becoming a jazz singer. I was much more interested in listening to Pearl Jam.«
Today Salvant, born in 1989 in Miami, Florida, is one of the most sought-after singers around, celebrated by audiences and acclaimed by critics for her »artistry of the highest order«. The FAZ raves: »The heavens open up when Salvant’s voice leaps effortlessly through the octaves«. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis says of her: »A singer like this only comes along once in a few generations.«
Cécile McLorin Salvant will soon be taking to the stage of the Elbphilharmonie Great Hall with a 13-piece ensemble to present her song cycle »Ogresse« as a singer, composer and visual designer. And that has a lot to do with the long, winding road that brought her to jazz, as well as with an obscene blues played by a drunk New Orleans pianist more than 85 years ago. But more on that later.
»A singer like this only comes along once in a few generations.«
FROM BAROQUE TO JAZZ
In the nineties, nobody recognised the girl’s enormous talent, least of all Salvant herself. She was busy using her parents’ turntable. Her father comes from Haiti; her mother, with French-Guadeloupean roots, had lived on four continents as a diplomat’s child from an early age. A cosmopolitan household. »I was lucky enough to be surrounded by all kinds of styles,« Salvant recalls. »I had hip-hop, soul, gospel, Cuban and Haitian music playing at home. And Sarah Vaughan was always there. When you listen to something like that as a child, a whole world opens up to you.« In addition to all this, her older sister got the young Cécile interested the industrial rock of Nine Inch Nails. As a 15-year-old, she was sporting a mohawk and listening to radical feminist punk; her favourite band was Bikini Kill.
Salvant has always had a mind of her own – above all, she knows what she doesn’t want. »They didn’t interest me at all« she says of her childhood piano lessons; she never practised, and only stuck with it because her mother put pressure on her. Nevertheless, classical music remained a hobby of hers, even when she went to study in the south of France at the age of 18. »I studied law at a political-science university – and Baroque music on the side,« says Salvant about her time in Aix-en-Provence. »I didn’t have time for jazz: a nice-to-have, but it didn’t really interest me.«
Cécile McLorin Salvant – »Mélusine«
But because her mother was pushing her (and because the cool people with dreadlocks were hanging out there), she did take part in a jazz course – and had a far-reaching insight: »I only realised there in France that jazz could be a real career option,« says Salvant today. »And that was a scandal for me! Jazz is America’s music, it’s America’s art form, it’s Black music. It is a reason why people overcame the awful circumstances they found themselves in. Jazz was a way to show that we Blacks were not just smart people, but artists and geniuses who deserved respect.«
Salvant changed her subject from Baroque to jazz singing, drawing her inspiration not only from the repertoire but also from the individual styles of great singers like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Her first concert tours through Europe soon followed, but she remained unknown in her own country. Until 2010, when Salvant took part in the Thelonious Monk Competition, winning one of the most prestigious awards for young jazz musicians without effort. There was a label boss in the audience who signed her without further ado. Her second album garnered a Grammy nomination, and she had won no fewer than three of the coveted trophies before she turned 30.
A LIVING SONG ARCHIVE
Cécile McLorin Salvant has remained true to her eclectic taste in music. Her current favourite artists include James Blake and Billie Eilish. From today’s perspective, it seems obvious: Salvant needs to engage with the geniuses of yesterday and today, to absorb all this music, roll it around in her head and stomach and then recombine it years later in her own work. One initial spark in this process was her study of the aforementioned drunk New Orleans pianist.
There is a legendary recording of ragtime artist Jelly Roll Morton dating from 1938: the »Murder Ballad», a 30-minute long form blues that is peppered with drastic language, even by present-day standards. It is about the fate of a woman who has shot her husband’s lover. »I love the grittiness in it,» says Salvant. »It’s a remarkable example of a man showing empathy – the very fact that he’s singing from a woman’s perspective! And it raises feminist issues: it’s about female solidarity, lesbian sex, murder and ethnic issues.«
Jelly Roll Morton – »Murder Ballad«
The singer performed »Murder Ballad» for the first time in 2017 at New York’s venerable Lincoln Center. »The audience was totally perplexed – jazz is often considered family-friendly. But afterwards I realised how much I wanted to work with long narrative forms. Up to then, I had sung a lot of pieces from musicals or from pop tradition. But I love building a storyline, telling a tale and living out every aspect of it myself.«
Salvant’s preoccupation with Haitian voodoo imagery led her to develop the figure of a female ogre, a man-eating monster that is much less likeable than the green film hero Shrek: she calls this character »Ogresse«, and she begins by sketching out her story in the briefest of terms: »She falls in love. She eats the guy. She dies«.
»I love building a storyline, telling a tale, living out every aspect of it myself.«
Cécile McLorin Salvant
»Ogresse» is a jazz opera, a dark Broadway musical, a piece about the balance between love, life and death. Salvant modelled the structure of her music on French Baroque cantatas, which require a singer and orchestra. Together with an arranger friend, she has put together a 13-piece chamber ensemble; there are banjos, tubas, congas and a marimba, as well as a string quartet.
Salvant is a living, breathing song archive. She has combined Gregory Porter with »The Wizard of Oz« and reinterpreted Kate Bush in the style of Gaelic song tradition. She has taken the finest, but also most hackneyed form of jazz to new heights, namely the interpretation of standards with only piano accompaniment. She doesn’t even shy away from songs full of sexism, making an old-fashioned piece like »Wives and Lovers» her own with a great deal of irony.
The power of an intensely performed song has always preoccupied her. Right after accepting her second Grammy Award, she said: »I love classical music, I love Baroque music and folk music. I don’t even know why I don’t sing any of it myself.« She closes this gap with »Ogresse«. Cécile McLorin Salvant has made sense of the past in her own fashion. And created something new at the same time.
This article appeared in the Elbphilharmonie Magazin (issue 1/24).