by Susan Kepecs
I’m not as good at keeping up these days as I used to be. One late Tuesday afternoon last summer while waiting for Ben Sidran to crank up the groove for the second set of his weekly warm weather salon for secular humanists, arch democrats and freethinkers, I found myself holding court at a little round table in the Cardinal Ballroom at what’s now known as Nomad World Pub, complaining about the state of jazz today among the up-and-coming generation. It’s so academic, so lacking in soul and grit!
“Ah,” said a friend, “then you don’t know about Cécile McLorin Salvant!” I didn’t. But now we all get a chance to catch up with what’s happenin’ in jazz, because McLorin Salvant plays the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall next Thursday, March 8.
The high song priestesses of an earlier era made their music from the bitterness of racism, sweetened with the honey of the black church. Unlike them, McLorin Salvant comes from a family of successful professionals and her musical foundations are classical voice and piano. At eighteen she went to France – her father is Haitian, her mother is French – to study classical voice at a conservatory in Aix-en-Provence while digging into political science and law on the side. There she tumbled into jazz by accident, say those who know, when her mother discovered a class in jazz singing on the curriculum and talked her into taking it. To her surprise, she fell in love. In 2010 she won the Thelonious Monk competition (while diligently studying law) and then, like almost all jazz musicians of her generation, she she ended up doing time in the academy, at the School of Jazz at the New School in Manhattan.
Today at 28 she’s a phenom, with four albums out and armloads of awards including the Grammy for Best Vocal Jazz Album – twice (in 2015 and 2017). She’s also got a few wonderful drawings (I think they’re in ink) scattered around the internet – there are a few on her own website, and they're worth looking up.
Most writers who’ve scored interviews with McLorin (I didn’t, though I tried for weeks), like Fred Kaplan, who writes for Slate and The New Yorker and who profiled her in the May 22, 2017 issue of the latter, portray her as studious and sort of proper. But jazz pianist Ethan Iverson, until recently of The Bad Plus, got her to open up and really talk about who she is today and how she got there for a piece that’s posted on his blog, Do The M@th. It’s a great interview; let me refer you to that.
Having not interviewed McLorin Salvant, and having not yet seen her in performance, all I can tell you is that what distinguishes her from many in her generation is easy to pinpoint. What she lacks in old-school grit she makes up for in quality. She swings her superbly malleable set of pipes through a vast repertory of jazz and blues standards with stylistic flexibility and emotional range that recalls the Great Ladies. She’s enormously expressive, bringing to light again the emotional depths of songs long left behind. But what makes McLorin Salvant a singer for our times, according to The Nation’s music critic David Hadju – this you can’t tell from a YouTube video – is a sly but penetrating feminism she lays over those wrenching old songs, born in a weighted epoch of high misogyny. Hallelujah for that.