“My memory is not the best,” confesses 28-year-old Cécile McLorin Salvant, one of jazz’s fast-rising young stars, whose voice and music is not easily forgotten once heard. Her admission is followed by a melodic peal of laughter. She’s scheduled to perform at London’s Ronnie Scott’s venue for two nights on the 11th and 12th October and is trying in vain recall details of her previous, critically-acclaimed, appearance at the legendary jazz club back in 2015. “I don’t remember the concert so much,” she admits, “but I remember the things that happen around the concerts. So I remember walking through London and then going to the stage, but to be fair, I don’t even remember what we played there. But I do know that it was a really great time. I’m looking forward to being there in October and offering a little bit of what we do now and showing how we’ve evolved since the last time we were there.”
Certainly, her career and music has moved on considerably since the last time she was in London. She won a Grammy award last year for her third album, ‘For One To Love,’ and is now about to unleash her most ambitious project yet – a sprawling double album called ‘Dreams And Daggers’ via Mack Avenue Records. Fusing live performances of jazz standards, recorded at Greenwich Village’s legendary Village Vanguard venue during a residency there at the tail end of last year, with brand new studio recordings featuring a string quartet, it’s an album that dares to be different. Cécile also devised the album’s striking cover art, which combines provocative photographs taken in her own bathroom with illustrations she’s done. It’s a thrilling example of a young artist exercising total and uncompromising artistic control in the realisation of her musical vision.
“I don’t think of myself too much as someone who has really big concepts,” she laughs, when quizzed on the central idea behind the album. “A lot of it is unexplainable and instinctive – or just what feels right. But also the album celebrates contrasts and is really playing with that idea – contrasts in texture, themes, intention, and sounds. Another thing about the album is that the songs are connected in different ways. The songs I wrote with the string arrangements were sometimes written in connection with the songs that we performed live. They’re like comments, counter-ideas or create a dialogue in between the songs, so the order is very much important in listening to the album because it’s a story that unfolds with those songs.”
There’s a commonly held perception that live and studio albums are two separate and totally different entities that are mutually exclusive. Cécile, though, subverts this orthodox belief by uniting those two different type of performances, using a storyline to provide unity and artistic coherence. But it’s more than union of live and studio recordings – it’s also a merging of, and dialogue between, the classic and the contemporary; where vintage material (evergreen jazz standards like ‘Devil May Care,’ ‘Mad About The Boy,’ ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ and ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’) are juxtaposed with freshly-composed original songs.
Explaining how this unique album took shape and her motivation for producing a hybrid live/studio combination, Cécile says: “I wanted to record a live album because that is what we sound like and that is the most authentic representation of our sound. But I also wanted to record with a string quartet and I was thinking about the possibility of doing a whole string quartet album later. But then I thought, well, tomorrow is not guaranteed, so let’s figure out a way to put these two things together. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be great to have the energy of a live album threaded and peppered through with this dreamy studio recording of a string quartet. So originally it was supposed to be two separate ideas but they came together.”
Ironically, when it comes to recording in the studio, Cécile abhors artifice and likes to keep it as spontaneous and ‘real’ as possible. She recorded her vocals live with the four string players in the Catalyst Quartet. “I never overdub,” she declares vehemently. “I hate overdubbing. That’s part of the reason I wanted to record live because when you record live, there’s no option of editing. That means I don’t have to get into a fight with people about whether or not I’ll allow any editing when they are recording with me. The musicians sometimes want to edit an ending, or they’ll say, ‘I played this wrong’ and it always ends up being a big fight or a huge argument. But there are no edits. Even in the studio, everything is recorded live, in one or a couple of complete takes.”
Underlining the album’s concept of duality and contrasts is its ear-catching title, ‘Dreams And Daggers.’ It’s an arresting juxtaposition of words with very different, almost opposite connotations – one seemingly abstract and the other denoting a physical object. “They’re words that come from lyrics in the album,” explains Cécile. “I like the idea of dreams because a dream can be at the same time dreams from your sleep, or things that are unexplainable. There is also the idea of dreams as hope – as this big idea we have for the future, like dreams for things to get better.”
But what of the daggers, then? “The dagger to me is an instrument of attack and also defence,” elaborates Cécile. “So some of the songs are dreams and some of the songs are daggers. So I guess it’s up to the listener to decide which is which and some of the songs have elements of both. Dreams can also be expressed forcefully. If you have a dream or hope for the future it can be accompanied with some kind of force. I don’t mean violence but any resistance or progress needs to be accompanied by some kind of force. So those are the ideas that I’m playing with. Part of the reason it’s called ‘Dreams And Daggers’ is that to me it’s a very evocative idea… and it should be what people want it to be.”
“It was really, really important for me to record with them because they’ve been such a huge part of my sound and what I do,” says Cécile. “Aaron (pictured above) brings so much: his ideas, his approach, his versatility, his sensitivity and his arranging, and he’s only a piece of it, because one of the most interesting things is how my band interacts together and how we play off each other and react and accompany each other. We all try to make each other sound good.”
The album also features a guest appearance from another noted pianist, Sullivan Fortner, on the song ‘You’ve Got To Give Me Some.’ Says Cécile: “Sullivan Fortner is one of my favourite pianists. I’ve sung with him a couple of times. Sullivan happened to be in the club that night and Aaron said, ‘please Sullivan, play a song’ because he loved Sullivan’s playing, he was a huge fan. And the thing that I like about having him on this recording is that it’s sort of a preview for things to come because I recorded a duo album with Sullivan this year and it’s going to come out next year. So it’s like a little trailer for that.”
Moving on from the new album to talk about her early years, Cécile, who’s originally from Florida, and studied classical music first, reveals that her interest in singing jazz came during a 2007 trip to France, where her mother originates from: “I met a jazz musician and teacher there (Jean-Francois Bonnel) who really encouraged me to sing jazz but definitely it was my mum who pushed me to go into his jazz class and from that point on it was over – I was hooked.”
Her sojourn to Aix-en-Provence was ostensibly to study law and baroque music but resulted in introducing her to a style of music that changed her life course. By 2010, she had recorded her first album – the independently-released ‘Cécile & the Jean-François Bonnel Paris Quintet’ – and the same year she beat fellow finalists Charenée Wade and Cyrille Aimée (now both recording artists) to win the coveted first prize in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Vocals Competition. Part of the prize was signing an album deal with Mack Avenue Records, and in 2013, she unveiled her inaugural album for the label, ‘WomanChild,’ which was nominated for a Grammy.
With her sinuous vocals, vivacious musical personality, emotional acuity, and clear diction, Cécile has been likened by some people to the great Sarah Vaughan. Though she cites Vaughan as having a profound influence on her, her development as a singer has been shaped by a raft of different people from diverse sectors of the arts. “I come from a place of many different influences,” she says, “that are not just singers but are visual artists, poets, writers, and sculptors – there are so many people that have influenced me that it’s hard to pin something down. Of course, there’s Sarah Vaughan but there’s also Blossom Dearie, Peggy Lee, and Bessie Smith. I spent so much time listening to so many people and also unknown people – people that have been forgotten – like Bert Williams, Annette Hansaw, and Blanche Calloway.”
But it’s not just singers that Cécile gravitates towards, and she finds creative nourishment from listening to some of jazz’s great instrumental geniuses: “I also feel very connected and influenced by other jazz musicians; people like Clifford Brown, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk – and I’m not even talking about all the pianists that influenced me.”
Another influence on Cécile is the American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Anne Sexton (1928-1974), whose words have had a deep impact on the young singer’s sensibilities. “I feel like I’m changing through reading her poetry and I’m changing the way that I sing songs and see my life and the people that I know,” says Cécile. “So it deeply influences me and overwhelms me. I say that all of these people I carry with me have influenced me. It would be hard to pin it down to even 20 people. They’re like companions and sometimes I feel like I can never be lonely because I have all these beautiful artists with me that have changed my life.”
Though she’s only 28-years-old, Cécile McLorin Salvant has already accomplished much in her short life. She’s released four albums, won eight awards – including a Grammy, the previously-mentioned Thelonious Monk prize, and a Downbeat Critics’ Poll – and has lit up concert venues, both big and small, around the world. While her remarkable new album, ‘Dreams And Daggers,’ seems certain to reap more accolades from the jazz press and add additional silverware to her already-bulging trophy cabinet, hers is still tale that has a long way to go and much unfolding to do. And though she’s appears to be at the top of her game already, you can’t help feeling that for this super-talented young torch-bearer of vocal jazz, the best is still yet come.
Cécile McLorin Salvant’s ‘Dreams And Daggers’ is released by Mack Avenue on September 29th.