A refreshing new voice: Cecile McLorin Salvant

Being a jazz concert and festival presenter, radio programmer, and journalist I am the fortunate recipient of all manner of new and recent CD releases and digital downloads from artists, spouses, publicists, labels and friends. That phenomenon has increased exponentially in the DIY era of digital recording, which coupled with the decimation of the record label business, has both compelled and made simpler the process of artists recording, releasing and making available their music. Of all instruments represented by this constant stream of new artist releases, the voice is represented by seemingly dozens of new records every month; and that is particularly the case with the female voice. It has long been a rather peculiar part of the jazz equation that while men dominate the other instruments in jazz, women dominate jazz voice exploits.

Frankly – and I’d hazard a guess that I could recruit a multi-voice chorus of amens on this from my fellow journalists, radio programmers and presenters working in jazz who are privy to new releases – the great majority of these (overwhelmingly women) vocalists making records today are either too green or too mediocre to have survived in the bygone era of artists needing labels to choose and subsequently release, distribute and publicize them; many of them simply would not have passed muster. But because we’re in the DIY era as far as record production is concerned, these singers just keep plugging.

Now and then a voice of true distinction, a vocal artist of obvious promise, and someone blessed with requisite humility to go with that great talent, comes along. The most recent such vocal artist is Cecile McLorin Salvant. Based on her brand new release Woman Child for the Mack Avenue label, Ms. Salvant is clearly one to watch, someone whose career arc will delight many, and whose meteoric talent is literally bursting at the seams for wider recognition.

The Woman Child title of this recording is quite apt; at the startlingly young age of 23 (you’ll hear what I mean by “startling” as soon as you hear her) Cecile displays all the qualities of a young woman with an old soul. Of Haitian descent, she was born in Miami and moved to Paris to study at 18 – an immersion which broadened her approach and is borne out in many ways by her subsequent artistry (for reference on Woman Child check her original song “Le Front Cache Sur Tes Genoux”, based on a poem by Ida Faubert). Three years ago Cecile won the Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocal Competition and I had the pleasure of presenting her as part of our annual Monk in Motion young artist concert series at Tribeca Performing Arts Center (along with two other very promising young voices: Charenee Wade and Cyrille Aimee; based on subsequent sightings, as far as Monk Competition finalists go there’s been no better trio). On that occasion I was taken by Cecile’s range and zeal to address older and in some cases obscure songs; mark her in the book as someone to watch. The progress she has made since that appearance to the release of Woman Child gives one further faith in young talent, especially this woman!

Last week was the capper for me. Cecile performed along with trumpeter Dominic Farinacci and her piano accompanist, the equally precocious and mature pianist Aaron Diehl (whose Mack Avenue debut The Bespoke Man’s Narrative is also recommended) as part of Dominic’s ongoing Young Artist residency series with Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland (full disclosure: this writer has served as artistic director of that festival for 17 years). In addition to being a fine trumpeter, Dominic is a sharp young guy and a Tri-C JazzFest alum who came up through our education program, along with such other trumpet aces as Sean Jones and Donald Malloy (you’ll be hearing about him soon) and a keen judge of the talent pool of his peers. In this case Dominic was beyond prescient in bringing Cecile to our festival.

I had an opportunity to small-talk with Cecile on several occasions during last week’s Cleveland residency and was impressed by her humility, grace and obvious intelligence (and don’t let the serious looks on her album cover photos throw you; girl’s got a radiant smile as well). When Dominic introduced her to our audience on April 23 and she eased onstage with her close cropped natural hair, in a billowing black dress, her characteristic oversized white framed glasses adding further distinction to her face, and wearing hot pink pumps, she already had our audience captivated. When she opened those rangy pipes, and particularly when she plumbed the lower depths of her impressive range, that audience was completely hers. You hear a coquettish youthfulness, colors ranging from little girl highs to learned woman low register expressions; a melange of influences that include shades of Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan – hell, make that the pantheon of great jazz women!) and the kind of keen Afro-folk awareness embodied by Nina Simone and the sisters of (scroll down for reference) Sweet Honey in the Rock (dig her take on “John Henry” on the new release). And she’s got a fine sense of drama; dig her incredible rendition of the obscure song “You Bring Out the Savage in Me” on Woman Child. Such high-positive response as embodied by her Cleveland audience is almost certain to be the case going forward, and I’d hazard a guess that the audience for her Saturday, May 18 performance at the Kennedy Center’s annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival will be equally taken. Look out for this one; she’s ‘da truth!

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