Cécile McLorin Salvant, a three-time winner of the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album, will be performing at Payomet in Truro this weekend, and jazz fans on the Outer Cape are in for a glorious night of music.
Downbeat magazine just named her female vocalist of the year, but describing her voice is difficult. There are shades of Ella Fitzgerald’s mellifluous embellishments. Sometimes her voice trails off with a weary whisper of Billie Holiday or the post-shipwreck sexiness of Ginger Grant. At other times she infuses a note or a phrase with a sound that recalls Dinah Washington at her most ebullient or mournful. But trying to pin her sound to anyone else’s is a losing game, because it is distinctly her own. Perhaps that’s why, at just 33, Salvant has risen to the top of the jazz world so quickly.
She burst onto the scene in 2010 by winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. She was only 21. She has produced an astonishing body of work that deftly represents her talents as a songwriter and as an intellectual pushing the boundaries of jazz singing for herself and her audience. This is lean-in jazz.
Spin magazine wrote, “Salvant has already far transcended her early status as her generation’s most imaginative and thrilling jazz interpreter.”
NYC Jazz Record said, “She’s established herself as a nonpareil performer whose range and unique approach to her material, including show tunes and the Great American Songbook, places her in the vanguard of vocal stylists.”
Salvant’s Instagram is a globe-hopping travelogue. Hong Kong one night, Siena the next. You must move quickly to get a ticket to hear her sing in New York City. Even weeklong engagements at the Village Vanguard with early and late shows sell out fast. She’s a Taylor Swift for jazz fans.
The complexity of Salvant’s music is rooted in her story. Born and raised in Miami, Fla., with a French mother and Haitian father, she started classical piano studies at five, sang in a children’s choir at eight, and took classical voice lessons as a teenager. After high school she headed to Aix-en-Provence, France, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in law while also studying baroque music and jazz.
Her latest release is Mélusine, an album sung mostly in French, along with Occitan, English, and Haitian Kreyòl. Jazz News wrote, “An exciting puzzle [of languages], thrilling instrumentation, and thrilling interpretation, Mélusine offers it all from Cécile McLorin Salvant. Wonderful, in every sense.”
“My influences go far beyond just America,” said Salvant, reflecting on the new album. “French is my first language. I’ve been listening to French music and singing in French forever. If I was going to make an album in French, well, why not now? But there’s English on the album. It also reflects other things I’m interested in, like Baroque music. I once very much wanted to become a singer of Baroque music.”
Right from the start, Salvant distinguished herself as an interpreter who comes with something to say. Her take on “The Trolley Song,” made famous by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis and as innocuous as a song can be, gave me vivid fantasies about being in a straitjacket. “Something’s Coming” is imbued with a sense of menace. There are surprises every time you listen to her music.
I first heard Salvant sing in the early days of the pandemic. During a Covid fever dream, I decided that when the pandemic ended I would follow her on tour like the hippies who followed the Grateful Dead. I would sell grilled-cheese sandwiches in the parking lot and beg for “miracle tickets.” Fortunately for everyone, that fever faded, but my love for Salvant remained steady.
That first indelible song I heard was “Growlin’ Dan,” written in 1935 by Blanche Calloway, the older sister of the legendary bandleader and entertainer Cab Calloway, and recorded on her 2015 album For One to Love.
The song requires acting chops, and Salvant brings the drama. Jazz critic Fred Kaplan wrote in the New Yorker that Salvant digs into a lyric like an actress: “She finds things in a lyric that other jazz singers kind of glide by.”
Salvant let out a hearty laugh when I told her that all the gays are obsessed with “Growlin’ Dan.” She was glad to hear it. Of course, by “all the gays” I meant me, but I’m pretty sure I speak for the room on this one. Go on, fight me.
“I almost regret having recorded “Growlin’ Dan,” ” she said. “Blanche Calloway was such an amazing talent and a huge influence on her brother Cab. I want people to know that and know her. I think maybe Blanche Calloway’s amazing version should be the only recording.
“Those song choices are very much about the intense emotional feelings you have when you are in your 20s, which I was when I made the album,” she continued. “I hope I don’t ever completely lose touch with those feelings, but it’s not where I am now.”
Salvant has an adventurous fashion sense and often performs in eye-catching ensembles — a towering yellow hat, a red Elizabethan ruff, and clothes designed by her to reflect her point of view on the music she’s singing. It’s a delightful bonus for the audience.
“I love fashion,” said Salvant. “I love to look at it and study it. I’m always looking at fashion online and filling up my cart with it. I don’t buy, but I fill up the cart.”
Salvant cited several Drag Race alums who have influenced her fashion style, like Violet Chachki, Bob the Drag Queen, and Mo Heart. Of course, her take on drag goes beyond merely being dazzled by sequins. After all, the New York Times called her “as serious as a library.”
“Drag outfits are walking utilitarian works of art,” she said.
In a life of almost constant touring — Brooklyn is home — how does Salvant like life on the road, and what does she do to decompress?
“I sleep,” she said. “I draw.” Salvant’s artwork is often featured on her albums and Instagram. An animation project is in the works.
“I listen to music,” she said. “I like a mixtape rather than listening to one album all the way through. It’s also important to travel with a good group of musicians you can hang out with.”
The event: Cécile McLorin Salvant in concert
The time: Sunday, Aug. 27, 7 p.m.
The place: Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Road, North Truro
The cost: $35-$75 at tickets.payomet.org