Rising vocal sensation Cécile McLorin Salvant is not the first young Grammy Award winner to warmly thank her parents for their early and unwavering musical support. But she may well be one of the first to suggest, with a broad smile, that a certain degree of fear may also have been also a factor.
“I never really wanted to play the piano - I was not an enthusiastic student! - but my mother kept me at it for 13 years. She’s a very strong woman and I’m afraid of her, slightly!” Salvant said backstage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 14, shortly after accepting her Grammy for 2016 Best Jazz Vocal Album.
She makes her overdue San Diego debut Thursday as part of the San Diego Symphony’s Bayside Summer Nights series.
San Diego Symphony Bayside Summer Nights presents “The Future of Jazz,” featuring Cécile McLorin Salvant
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Embarcadero Marina Park South, 200 Marina Park Way, downtown
Phone: (619) 235.0804
The 26-year-old Miami native laughed when reminded of her backstage Grammy remarks, and slyly noted that she has “a slightly twisted sense of humor.” Then, Salvant - who has been hailed as the most gifted new jazz singer of her generation - grew more contemplative.
“I was not a rebellious child,” she noted. “I just kind of did what my parents wanted and expected me to do. They wanted good things for me and gave me so much. I didn’t feel like I had a tiger mom. But I will say, regarding the piano ...”
Salvant, the daughter of a French mother and a Haitian father, paused for emphasis.
“I think if I had really told her my mom: ‘I’m tired of the piano. I’m not doing it anymore; it’s over,’ and insisted, she would have said: ‘OK,’” Salvant mused. “But there was always a moment where I’d say or think that. And then I’d come back to the piano and enjoy it, even though I didn’t practice as much as I should have.
“I still loved being around music and making music. I did it begrudgingly. I was torn between not wanting to do it - because I didn’t want to put any work in - and then really enjoying when I learned a song and played it. I’m very grateful I played the piano for so long, because it helps me today. I still write at the piano. I sight-read sometimes. It helps me with a number of things in music.”
Moving the crowd
Like few other jazz singers in recent memory, Salvant is blessed with exceptional artistic skill and emotional range. Her vocal flexibility allows her to expertly changes moods and direction in mid-verse, while her luminous, finely nuanced delivery is a marvel of grace and precision, even in her most spontaneous moments. Moreover, she is both a gifted songwriter and a first-rate interpreter of classics and rarities by other artists.
The 2010 winner of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Vocalist Competition, she exudes the kind of musical warmth and invention that can draw in jazz fans and neophytes alike.
“When I’m onstage, I empathize with the audience, because I didn’t really think I’d be a jazz singer, although I enjoyed it, as a listener,” said the classically trained singer and pianist. “So I hope that maybe the audience could be moved in a way similar to how I felt moved, by a song or a performance that completely is a mirror to my emotions and allows me to see myself better. Or it can be something that takes me out of myself and my petty problems, and transcends my own little world as an audience member when I go to a show.
“I think it’s rare when that happens,” she stressed. “I don’t suggest it happens every time we play, or even often. It’s something that can happen rarely. But I hope that people are moved, that they take something emotionally from it, more than intellectually. I don’t want to necessarily make people think, although I do feel that’s important. And I like to touch on issues and matters of identity, politics and racism, because that’s part of what I do.
“But, first and foremost, what I strive for is this nameless thing, this really, really deep feeling you get when you are in front of a piece of art or listening to some music. Either it gets you or you get it, so some sort of connection is made.”
Salvant’s father is a doctor and her mother is the principal at a bilingual French-English school in Miami. Her parents exposed her to a broad range of music growing up, but it was only after she moved to France to attend college at 17 that she was exposed to many of the jazz vocal greats that would soon inspire her to shift away from her law and political science studies.
Those greats - including Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters - were introduced to her by saxophonist Jean-François Bonnel. The teacher of a jazz class at the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud in Aix-en-Provence, he soon became a key mentor to Salvant, who is fluent in French and English, and conversant in Spanish.
“My jazz teacher in France introduced me to an incredible amount of singers,” Salvant said. “He had old records - 72s?”
Might she mean 78s?
“Yes, 78s! And we’d listen to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Of course, people in the United States do that. But I don’t know if I would have had that same access here. In France, if you turn on the radio, you’re likely to hear some Louis Armstrong at some point in the day. I don’t think you can say that about the U.S., and he’s supposed to be one of our heroes.”
Unrequited love a key inspiration
A good number of the songs Salvant writes address matters of the heart and unrequited love. She also has a rare ability to transform songs recorded long before her birth. They include Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Wives and Lovers,” which she cites as one of the most sexist songs extant, Valaida Snow’s 1934 chestnut "(You Bring Out) the Savage in Me,” and 1905’s wrenching “Nobody” by Bert Williams, an African-American singer and trumpeter who performed in black-face.
“The first thing that attracted me to ‘Wives and Lovers’ was, of course, the music. I thought that song sounded great,” Salvant said. “The lyrics are absurd, but that whole idea that a woman needs be obsessed with what she looks like - more so than a man - in order to secure her place in society, is still something we deal with. I wanted to poke fun at the lyrics, but also underscore that (this mindset) is not over.
“With Bert Williams and Valaida Snow, I think the stories behind the songs are really interesting, and I share them with the audience. Sometimes the story is not interesting and the song is still beautiful. But when there is an interesting story, it can make the song even more meaningful and special.”