At 25 years old, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant has ascended quickly in the jazz world. Her 2013 album WomanChild topped several DownBeat critics' polls, including jazz album of the year and best female vocalist. She also won the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocalist competition, which helped introduce her style of singing to jazz fans around the globe. While many jazz vocalists sing straight and add vocalese, or simulated instrumental lines, Savant inhabits her songs and adds a degree of drama to them. Salvant says she has always sung that way.
"When I was a kid in school, we would have to recite poems in French," Salvant says via phone from New York. "Most of the other kids would just say them. I would dramatize them with movements and hand gestures."
Salvant pulls off her style by also relying on her varying timbres and spot-on melodic sense, and not allowing the drama to overwhelm the music. Her voice sweeps and swells, and it sounds both old and young, at times echoing Billie Holiday and Betty Carter. She also has an unconventional repertoire. Her take on Bert Williams' signature 1906 tune ""Nobody" delves into the emotions behind the lament and invokes the greater social and racial context of the song.
"A song has to mean something to me personally for me to sing it," Salvant says. "And I like to sing songs that haven't been recorded too often. I like to introduce unfamiliar songs to new audiences."
But it's her obvious joy in singing that propel tunes like the 1930s jazz number "You Bring Out the Savage In Me." Her energetic vocals in the Latin-tinged romp are simply fun as they dart over the nimble and propulsive drums of Herlin Riley on the rendition included on WomanChild. The same approach makes her voice jump out on her versions of the folk song "John Henry" and the 1920s blues of Bessie Smith on "Baby, Have Pity on Me."
Salvant was born in Miami and grew up in France. Her mother is French and Guadeloupean and her father is Haitian. She studied classical voice in Aix-en-Provence, France before she switched to jazz. "I sang 'Misty' in class one time," she says. "I had heard Sarah Vaughan's version, and after I sang it, my teacher said, 'You have to sing that.'"
Salvant is making her first trip to New Orleans, but she's already familiar with the city's culture.
"New Orleans to me is the fusion of music — folk music and blues and jazz," she says. "Sometimes whether in music or art or food, people will put two or three different things together, and it doesn't work. In New Orleans, it works. There is a Haitian connection and French influence there, and that connects to my heritage, so I'm interested to see what that is like."