Cécile McLorin Salvant brings tension, release to ‘WomanChild’

Cécile McLorin Salvant draws references to Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Betty Carter.
John Abbott
Cécile McLorin Salvant draws references to Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Betty Carter.

The tour de force on Cécile McLorin Salvant’s sublime new album — well, the first of a handful — is her performance of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” Her rendition of the Billie Holiday staple is eight minutes of twists and turns in the melody, of vocal shadings that simmer before boiling over. It ends the only way that makes sense: with McLorin Salvant unleashing a string of ecstatic high notes.

It comes from “WomanChild,” the rising 24-year-old jazz singer’s Mack Avenue Records debut, which delivers on the promise she exhibited after winning the vocal division of the
Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2010. Raised in Miami as the daughter of a French mother and a Haitian father, McLorin Salvant spent four years in France honing her musical chops.

Ahead of her two performances at Regattabar on Friday, we recently caught up with McLorin Salvant over e-mail from her home in Miami.


Q. You preferred lesser-known material for “WomanChild,” but what was your knowledge of some of these songs before you recorded them?

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A. The songs on the album are some of my favorite tunes. I listen to a good amount of music, and every time I hear something that catches my attention — usually there’s something a bit unusual about it, an interesting story — I write it down and try it out with the band. Some of these songs I’ve only heard one other version of, like “You Bring Out the Savage in Me” by Valaida Snow, or “St. Louis Gal” by Bessie Smith. Others, like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” I’ve tried to hear as many versions as I can.

Q. I got the impression that you really curated these selections, as if you had something to say about them. What did you keep in mind as you were looking for songs?

A. It’s really important for me to be able to relate to a song, and that’s usually through the lyrics. I chose these songs because I felt like they could go in many different directions; something like “You Bring Out the Savage in Me” is so completely racist, and sexist, and absurd, but also funny and, in a way, empowering. I was looking for contrast and tension within the songs themselves. The difficulty, then, is being able to make all of that evident in the performance! I wanted to sing about the things that I’m a little bit obsessed with, like time, love, death, loneliness, and humor.

Q. Your performance of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” was a revelation. Tell me a little bit about your approach to that one.


A. It all started out with trying to do different things in a rehearsal with Aaron Diehl (piano), Paul Sikivie (bass), and Lawrence Leathers (drums). We tested a few things out and ended up with the arrangement. I think what I like about that song is that it’s all about describing a moment from the outside, kind of like an out-of-body experience, and there’s a certain atmosphere to it that I find really exciting and fresh. It’s like there’s all of this bottled-up energy that might explode at any moment.

Q. Did you have touchstones for what you wanted this new album to sound like?

A. I pictured the sound for the album before I did anything else. I wanted it to be round, warm, and made of wood and skin! It’s a little weird, but that’s how I visualized it. I also wanted it to feel like there was a good mix of this more folk, rural vibe with an urban, city vibe. That’s one of the things I love the most about jazz, that those two atmospheres can come together so seamlessly.

Q. You have an interesting backstory for a jazz musician, from where you were raised to where you studied music. Did you have a sense in the moment that you were forging your own path?

A. I’m not sure I really had a sense of anything. . . . I don’t think I even knew I was on a path to begin with. I was just singing jazz because I met a teacher in France who encouraged me . . . and eventually things started happening. It took me years before I realized I was going to do this professionally.


Q. When you’re a young jazz singer, is it frustrating to constantly be saddled with comparisons to the masters? One can hardly read about you without references to Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Betty Carter. Is that flattering or perhaps overwhelming?

A. It’s definitely flattering! But it also feels a bit like people often need to compare new musicians to someone. Maybe it’s so they can try to understand it better, or also because there’s always something fun and gratifying about finding who a person looks like or sounds like! But I have many influences that people don’t talk about at all, that I totally stole from while I was trying to figure out what this music was. People like Blossom Dearie, Babs Gonzales, Lil Armstrong, and Valaida Snow. Eventually, it’s nice to have a little space to be able to do something free from all of that!

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.