Cecile McLorin Salvant

How the hell could I have missed Cecile McLorin Salvant? It's not as if she's been toiling in obscurity. She won the Thelonious Monk award in 2010, the Downbeat Critics' Prize for best jazz album (WomanChild) in 2014, and a Grammy for best jazz vocal album ( For One to Love) just this year. She's been singing with her trio at the Village Vanguard this past week, and every set has been sold out or nearly so. Again, how did I—someone who's supposed to follow this sort of thing—miss the boat?

For some reason, her publicist passed by my name in sending out review copies of her albums, though that's no excuse: I do pay cash money for new records now and then. I might not have gone to the trouble this time because I tend to be dismissive, or skeptical, of jazz singers. My reasoning: you don't have to sound like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane to be a great saxophone player; but if you want to sing standards, there's only so much you can do without inviting comparison with the great ones—Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, June Christy, Betty Carter, Shirley Horn—and few measure up.

Well, I went to see Cecile McLorin Salvant Thursday night at the Village Vanguard, and let me tell you, she more than measures up. She stands with the best of them. She does it all: her blues are bluesy, her swing swings, she spans every octave (from silky highs to growly lows to everything, every shade in between), with the full range of emotion—joy, rage, wit, whimsy, frothy romance, heavy passion—and she does it naturally, without a trace of show-off. She does it with Gershwin, Berlin, Bessie Smith, and—in the set's jaw-drop closer—Kurt Weill & Langston Hughes' "Somehow I Could Never Believe," from their little-known opera, Street Scene, on which she displayed a vast and subtle range of character and mood, suggesting she could hit it big on Broadway (or at City Opera), if she chose. She's a master storyteller as well as a master singer.

Oh, and she's 28 years old.

She was born in Miami, her father a Haitian doctor, her mother the founder of a French immersion school. She took lessons in classical piano from age five, sang in a local choir at eight. At 18, she moved to Aix-en-Provence to study classical and baroque voice at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory (she also made time to study law), then took lessons in improvisation and the songbook repertory. Only at this point, in 2009, at the age of 20, did she try her hand at jazz singing; she drew rave reviews for a gig at Ronnie Scott's in London and kept going.

Her band is also top-notch. Pianist Aaron Diehl has a supple touch and inventive chops comparable to the great accompanists to jazz singers—say, Tommy Flanagan to Ella or Mal Waldron to Billie. Paul Sikivie plucks a warm insistence on bass. Lawrence Leathers spreads sticks and brushes on the drums with supreme tastiness.

If you can nab one of the small number of seats for sale this weekend (she and her trio play through Sunday, September 11), rush to do so. If not, catch her the next time she's in your city. Meanwhile, I'm going to check out her albums. I'll let you know.

michael green's picture

Hi Fred

So glad you've been turned on to Cecile! I just shake my head and smile when I hear folks say there's no good new music out there today. Fact is there's more than we will ever get to.

And Live, that's an extra bonus!

Michael Green

woodford's picture

someone else I'd recommend checking out- her CD got a great review in downbeat:


also classically trained, there's some truly inventive repertoire choices, including Modern English's I'll Melt With You.

and the CD is beautifully recorded. stellar pianist as well.


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

From One to Love and WomanChild are available in both DSD128 and 24/96 from Downloads Now.