When Cecile McLorin Salvant’s new album, Dreams and Daggers, was recently nominated for a Grammy Award she decided to re-listen to a couple of tracks to see what the fuss was about. She couldn’t even last two songs. She just can’t stand her own jazz singing, the aspect of her multifaceted creativity that has spread her name around the globe and already won her one Grammy.
Of course many musicians only hear flaws when listening to their records, but with Salvant it’s a much worse malaise than that.
“Why put yourself through unnecessary misery?” is her summation of it, speaking by telephone from her Harlem home. “I listen because I have to for mastering and mixing, but once the record’s out that’s no longer my responsibility. I do not want to hear it. Never as an enjoyment, no. I just don’t like my music. I enjoy making the music, and I enjoy being on stage and performing. I guess it’s strange, but it’s like a mirror. We’re not meant to listen to ourselves, we’re not meant to look at ourselves in the mirror. We’re just meant to give, and consume what someone else does.”
Salvant, 28, initially happened upon the wide boulevard called jazz via the unlikely side street of baroque music. Coming from a French-speaking US household (having a Haitian father and French mother), she had enrolled at 18 in the Darius Milhaud Conservatory in Aix-en-Provence to spend some time in France. The plan was to study classical voice, but when a teacher called Jean-François Bonnel heard her sing he corralled her into his extra-curricular jazz sessions.
This improbable route arguably made her approach more her own. Not only has she never been through a jazz tertiary course, she’s never even had a jazz vocal teacher. “Someone once asked me what advice I would give to young singers,” she says, “and my advice would be, ‘Unlearn everything that was taught to you, and try to sing like your grandmother.’ I want to be able to sing like my grandmother. I want to be able to sing like I’m 200 years old, and with none of the preciousness.”
“Preciousness” is her code-word for a preoccupation with satisfying audiences with merely super-professional performances. “I say this because I paint a lot, too, but I do that for myself,” she explains. “Nobody is looking at me. Nobody cares about what I’m painting. So there’s something more natural, more unique, more successful in a drawing that I just did, with no worry about being perfect, than when I’m performing. Even though I’m constantly trying to correct that, it still escapes me a little bit. I still have this desperate need of doing a good job,” the last words uttered almost with disdain.
Nonetheless to these ears at her best she is still capable of seeming like her inner child has been let loose in this big sandpit called jazz. “I try to get to the play element of it,” she agrees, “and not focus so much on how I sound. Of course there’s a certain amount of control that’s been hammered into me from classical voice lessons from a young age. But there is an element of wanting to just play around, and really explore things and not have it be so sacred and so rigid and stiff. But it’s not always successful, I would say.”
Dreams and Daggers, recorded live at New York’s fabled Village Vanguard, is the most complete statement of her jazz artistry to date. Before an audience the performer in her trumps any preciousness, so the listener can revel in her glistening tone, improbable range, inventiveness and ability to make the lyrics of a standard sound like a story being told for the first time.
Try saying any of that to Salvant and she shies from praise like a skittish horse from fire. More than just modesty, this is a conviction that she is still far from achieving her musical goals. Perhaps because of this very tendency to be so self-critical her rise has been meteoric. At 21 she won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, the world’s most prestigious such event. This led to a recording contract, and she has now released four albums as leader.
Both her singing and her original songs occupy a timeless place in jazz. Indeed she loves art’s ability to communicate across generations in a way that is almost like time-travelling. She points to Monk, a towering composer/pianist of the mid-20th century, as a classic example of what she calls being “prehistoric and futuristic” at the same time.
Another key love and influence has been the divine Sarah Vaughan. “Sarah to me is the one that’s most difficult to shake off,” she says. “I hear her and I cannot help thinking, ‘Oh, how nice it would be to sound just like that!’ And that’s not a very artistic endeavour: to hear someone and say, ‘How great must it be to wake up in the morning and open your mouth and that’s what you sound like.'”
Banishing excessive influences joins self-doubt, depression and periods of complete non-creativity in her battle to be the artist she wants to be, compounded by fighting off the expectations of others. She hates, for instance, the fact she is expected to write songs as well as sing, unlike most of her great jazz-singer precursors. “That’s a big shame,” she opines. “It means people are forced to write, and that means that some of it is not going to be that good. Not everyone is a writer. I don’t even know if I’m a writer.”
I’m pretty confident she is – and one far in advance of most of her contemporaries. But we shan’t burden her with that praise.
“The problem with any art-form that has lasted a certain of amount of time is that there are codes and rules and expectations,” she continues. “So now today there’s very much an expectation of like, ‘When are you going to do your Bjork song?’, or ‘When are you going to scat?’ If I choose a song it’s really because I feel so deeply connected to the lyrics. I’m naturally inclined to sing songs about identity, how we treat each other and power dynamics. That’s just because I’m interested in that, not because I feel like I should.”
Delivering lyrics is her substitute for being the actress she always wanted to be. So why didn’t she pursue that?
“There’s not that many opportunities for actors, period, let alone if you’re a black woman,” she replies. “People cast characters based on appearance, and there is only one acceptable appearance, which is a skinny blond lady, you know? So unless you want to play the role of some sassy friend who shows up once, and snaps her fingers and shakes her head, there’s not much to do. I never went down that road because I never saw anyone like me in a movie, so I didn’t think about it.
“But what a joy to be able to sing jazz,” she says with sudden effervescence, “and to have that musical aspect to it and also dip my toe into drama and performing. So I totally take it. I love it.”
Even so Salvant’s dream is actually to return to baroque music at some point, with all that entails in terms of resuscitating that aspect of her voice. “It means taking a pause from singing jazz,” she says. “But it’s something I’m seriously thinking about a lot.”
I wonder if she’d be able to listen to herself on record, then.
Cecile McLorin Salvant: Adelaide Festival Theatre, March 17.